Irvine accused of contempt of court

THE CONTROVERSIAL Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, who has been found guilty of sex and race discrimination, may soon find himself in the dock again, accused of contempt of court.

Two women lawyers who won an industrial tribunal case against Lord Irvine in March now plan to take him to court over "demeaning and insulting" remarks he made about their character and motivation.

Jane Coker and Martha Osamor have asked their lawyers to examine ways to bring contempt proceedings over his comments. The two women said they decided to act after the Lord Chancellor gave an interview to the Law Society Gazette in which he said he had no regrets about describing the women's claim as "mischievous" and politically motivated.

Full reasons for the tribunal's finding against the Lord Chancellor will be given this week.

The case centred on allegations of cronyism within the Government. The panel found Lord Irvine was guilty of sex and race discrimination when he appointed his friend Garry Hart - who is the godfather of Tony Blair's daughter - as his pounds 73,000-a-year special adviser.

The full ruling is expected to make unhappy reading for the Government. The panel will call into question the decades-old procedure for the appointment of advisers to ministers, such as Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's spokesman.

Nearly all of the 69 advisers, whose salaries cost the taxpayer pounds 2.6m a year, were hand-picked by ministers. Only the jobs of the "drugs tsar" and his deputy went out to open selection.

Special advisers were introduced by Harold Wilson in 1968 to provide expertise to ministers, before the introduction of sex and race equality laws. Although they are appointed under a special Order in Council, which allows ministers to bypass normal civil service recruitment procedures, the tribunal found that did not exempt them from employment and equality law.

Lord Irvine's decision to select his adviser from an elite circle of his white male friends, so denying women and ethnic minorities a chance, meant he was guilty of indirect bias, it ruled.

Although both women succeeded in proving the system was flawed, the tribunal found that only Ms Coker, a 44-year-old immigration lawyer with a formidable background, had been discriminated against, saying she had had a realistic chance of landing the job. It ruled that Ms Osamor, 59, a Labour member for 15 years, was politically too "Old Labour" to have stood a realistic chance.

"It was the principle that the Lord Chancellor was not above the law of the land that I was interested in - not about any detriment I might have suffered," Ms Osamor said yesterday. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Ms Osamor said that neither she nor Ms Coker realised that their case would have implications for the Government when they spotted a short announcement in a legal magazine that Mr Hart, then a partner in the City firm of Herbert Smith and a specialist in planning law, had been appointed to the post.

Ms Coker, who has a law firm in north London, said: "I simply thought: `I would have liked that job.' I was ideally qualified. The Government was to introduce human rights legislation and set about reforming access to justice and changing legal aid. Not only was I a solicitor dealing with people who had been denied access to justice, I had also advised Labour in opposition on key legislation. I looked to a Labour government to change things, and I wanted to be there to change things - but I never got a chance."

She found she could not apply for the job. It was not advertised; there were no head-hunters and there were no checks in place to ensure that the process was not discriminatory. And the women found that with such a policy the Cabinet was replicating itself with its choice of advisers. There are no black special advisers and only 24 per cent are women, the same make-up as the Cabinet.

The tribunal was told that Lord Irvine needed someone in the job that he could totally trust. But Ms Coker said: "Special advisers are high-powered and incredibly responsible jobs. To exclude those who might have excellent qualifications and to assume they are not trustworthy, because they are not personally known, is a nonsense."

The Lord Chancellor says he intends to appeal against the ruling. Yesterday a spokeswoman in his department said she could not comment on the possibility of contempt proceedings.

Ironically, the Lord Chancellor has already appointed Ms Osamor to sit on employment tribunals. Meanwhile, Jane Coker has been shortlisted for an assistant recorder post on the Oxford and Midland judges' circuit. The decision over her appointment also rests with him.

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