Lord Bingham of Cornhill, one of the four most senior judges in England and Wales, made his comments in defence of criticism that the courts were too politically correct. He said judges had in the "past few years" simply become more sensitive to the feelings of ethnic minorities, women and people with disabilities.
If judges had not accommodated to society's changing attitudes, "the men amongst us would still be asserting their common-law right to beat their wives and beat their children, and husbands would be asserting their common-law right to rape their wives, if they were not separated," he said.
His comments follow those made in September by a senior Old Bailey judge, who used his retirement speech to claim that political correctness was "creeping into all our everyday lives". Judge Henry Pownall was reported as saying: "Too much political correctness destroys, rather than promotes, good relations of all sorts."
But Lord Bingham said that a ruling last week by the law lords, which gave gay couples tenancy rights, was an example of the courts responding to changes in society. It was only when these decisions became extreme that it was "objectionable", he said.
"The difficult question is whether any particular court has got ahead of public opinion. I don't think that in any case decided in this country they have."
Asked about the recent controversy over "secret soundings", where the judiciary and top lawyers are privately consulted on the suitability of applicants before the Lord Chancellor appoints new judges, the Lord Chief Justice came out in favour of the system. He said it was "as good as any to be found anywhere in the world".
Lord Bingham made his comments a few weeks before the parliamentary commissioner, Sir Leonard Peach, is due to hand his report on the selection of judges to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. Lord Irvine called for the report after criticism by the legal profession of the selection of judges.
Lord Bingham, at an informal press conference at the Royal Courts of Justice, said that calling the system "secret soundings" made it sound "extremely sinister and unsatisfactory".
"I think the present system is extraordinarily thorough and comprehensive and extraordinarily successful," he added.
He said that although there had been criticism of various kinds, "no one has made a case that the wrong people are being appointed or that people who would make better judges are somehow being overlooked".
"I am an unashamed apologist of our judiciary, who are as good as any to be found anywhere in the world," he said.
He said a system of selection which produces "a high quality product cannot be as bad as suggested".Reuse content