Lord Irvine unceremoniously dumped Labour's long-standing proposal for a Judicial Appointments Commission yesterday, along with a promised consultation exercise on its potential benefits.
Instead, High Court appointments will be advertised, he will ensure there are more flexible arrangements for those starting out in the lower reaches of the judicial system, and an annual report will be presented to Parliament on the operation of the appointments system. "In the light of my proposed measures and other substantial priorities facing my department ... I have decided not to proceed with further work on a possible commission but to concentrate on making those changes I regard as most urgent," he said in a press statement.
Lawyers reacted favourably to the measures, as far as they go. Lord Irvine has also promised to consider whether an Ombudsman should hear complaints from those who believe they have been unfairly treated by the appointments process.
However, the practice of selecting High Court judges on the basis of secret "soundings", or "consultations", rather than objective selection criteria will continue. Equally critically, the Lord Chancellor has no plans to reappraise the system for appointing QCs, or "silks", the principal route to high judicial appointment but one which fails to reflect increasing numbers of suitably qualified women at the Bar.
Lord Irvine's snap announcement provoked astonishment, moreover, among representatives of women and ethnic minority lawyers with whom he had recently set up a joint working group specifically to discuss High Court and QC appointments. The first meeting, to discuss terms of reference and attended by two Lord Chancellor's Department officials, took place on 22 September at the Law Society. The first full meeting has been scheduled for 20 October.
Josephine Hayes, chairman of the Association of Women Barristers, said: "I am astonished at the announcement in the light of the timetable we had planned."
Ms Hayes, 42, unsuccessfully applied for an assistant recordership last year, along with more than 1,000 other applicants. She said: "We regret this sudden decision to rule out a Judicial Appointments Commission without any apparent consultation with informed groups. Lord Irvine has done a U-turn. We are gravely concerned at Lord Irvine's decision to continue the secret consultations procedure. It is contrary to good recruitment practice and an obstacle to the full participation of women and ethnic minorities."
Jenny Staples, chairman of the Association of Women Solicitors and another member of the working group, said: "The Lord Chancellor has only just set this group up. He hasn't waited to hear what we have to say. This secret way of appointing judges and QCs is not to women's advantage because we are not in the old boy network. Women and ethnic minorities will never achieve high judicial office without the introduction of objective criteria."
The latest figures appear to prove the point. There are 2,845 men at all levels of the judicial system and 306 women almost exclusively concentrated at the lower levels. There are just 15 non-whites.
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