When you read a headline like the one above it is easy to imagine that the Chief Justice expressing these concerns is from some obscure country with no understanding of judicial independence, no history of separation of powers. But in fact the Chief Justice who made these observations was the Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, head of the judiciary of England and Wales and President of the Courts of England and Wales.
He has warned of ‘unprecedented levels of political interference’ by politicians in the work of the courts which he heads. He has even suggested that MPs should be ‘taught about “boundaries”’.
One of the most recent examples he cites concerns a case in which a former MP was jailed for sexual assaults, and MPs from the same party tried to stop character references supportive of the convicted MP, part of the case that was heard, from being made public.
‘There has been nothing quite like it in my experience,’ the Chief Justice said.
He even added that the judiciary was considering ‘drawing up a “short briefing” for new members’ of both chambers. The briefing would explain ‘the boundaries between our respective roles and the need to respect the independence of the judiciary’.
He and other members of the legal profession have also expressed concern about comments by the prime minister and other top government officials, related to immigration lawyers, with critical remarks about ‘activist’ lawyers who represented asylum seekers.
Lawyers should ‘not be subject to criticism for doing their job’ by representing clients, he said.
Rule of law
The Independent quotes him as saying that the vitality and independence of the legal profession is an essential hallmark of a society governed by the rule of law. ‘A general attack on the profession, in my view, undermines the rule of law’.
He added that he would not support ‘coercive steps’ against politicians, saying: ‘I think this is something which is best dealt with by calm response from the professions, and I hope my response will be judged to have been calm, to explain why attacks of that sort are not appropriate.’
Last month there was also concern expressed among top former UK judges about a suggestion by the Prime Minister that judicial candidates should be ‘vetted by Parliament’.
Speaking in Parliament, the Attorney General said some kind of ‘parliamentary scrutiny of judicial candidates’ might ‘very well need’ to be carried out.
On the same issue, the Irish Legal News writes that a number of recently retired judges reacted strongly to these remarks, calling them ‘wholly misguided’, ‘devoid of merit’ and ‘both unprincipled and useless’ in that it would be ‘an overt attempt to stuff the court with political creatures, which would discredit any one appointed by such a method.’