The tests, devised by psychologists, would help Lord Irvine to identify lawyers with the right personalities to become judges or reach high judicial office. They would also be used to test against attitudes of racism, rudeness and over-conservatism.
The proposal forms part of Sir Leonard Peach's report on the judicial appointments process. Sir Leonard said that a trial group of part-time judges could be used to try out the "psychometric tests" - a form of personality assessment. The tests would then be included in the appointment process for assistant recorders (part-time junior judges) whose number include the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth.
Sir Leonard recommends: "The test should be completed prior to interview in controlled surroundings and its result should be used by the panel during the course of the interview and certainly in the final evaluation of the candidate."
Dr Colin Cooper, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, said that any test on judicial suitability would have to test for set personality traits. He listed these as open-mindedness (willingness to consider new ideas), conscientiousness (careful attention to detail), agreeableness (being able to interact effectively with juries and counsel).
He said conservatism (prejudice, excessive punitiveness and ethnocentrism) was an example of a negative judicial personality trait. Judges would answer dozens of questions designed to test for these qualities. But he stressed that any clued-up aspiring judge would know what the expected answers to the questions would be.
Gerald Butler QC, a retired senior circuit judge, said he thought the most important quality for a judge was common sense. He said: "I suspect that it [the test] rather misses the point. You should probably do it three or four years after appointment as this is when weaknesses start to appear." He said this was when the "insolence of office" took effect. "I doubt you can test for those people who are more susceptible to that. I find the whole thing a rather curious idea indeed."
Sir Leonard also recommended the use of self- appraisal forms for potential judges and those seeking promotion as well as an Ombudsman to address the concerns of disappointed candidates. Lord Irvine welcomed the broad sweep of Sir Leonard's report, saying he would now "consider the recommendations in detail". He said he would immediately act on Sir Leonard's proposal for a Commissioner for judicial appointments to oversee the process.
But the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said the report was a "wasted opportunity for real reform" and stated its intention to continue with its boycott of "secret soundings" where judges, barristers and solicitors are consulted on the suitability of judicial candidates. It called for the creation of a full judicial appointments commission to select judges.
Lord Irvine said the term "secret soundings" was misleading because the system was no more "secret" than any other way of gathering references. He said that anyone who wanted to know who was being consulted about their application to the bench need only ask their department.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers, adopted an opposite stance and welcomed the report as "thoughtful and searching".