Prospective judges must sit exams, say lawyers

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THE SELECTION and promotion of judges should be based on exams and aptitude tests, not on the "secret soundings" used at present, the Lord Chancellor has been told.

Lord Irvine of Lairg has also been urged to reconsider his decision not to press ahead with the creation of a judicial appointments commission.

An unpublished report by a working party set up jointly by the Bar Council and Law Society recommends that all prospective judges, and existing ones up to the level of deputy High Court judge, should sit law exams and be tested on their ability to give oral and written judgments.

Most judges have not had to sit any exams since they were at law school. And although the current selection criteria stipulate that prospective judges should have a "sound knowledge" of the law, that is not properly tested. The report recommends that exams should be imposed to "assess whether the applicant is basically competent in and able to rapidly master areas of law and procedure outside his/her own usual field".

Such tests, the report recommends, should be "extended across the board to include prospective deputy High Court judges".

The report is the most serious criticism so far of the secret soundings that are used to select and promote judges, which involve the Lord Chancellor's department sounding out senior judges and other lawyers for their views on the suitability of individual candidates for judicial posts.

Last month the Law Society called for an end to all secret soundings and withdrew its co-operation with the current system; and last week the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality joined the campaign to kill off secret soundings.

The joint working party was set up to find ways of increasing the number of women and ethnic minority judges. The report said: "Even with recent and welcome improvements to the appointments process, the reality is that, despite their increasing numbers in the legal profession, women and ethnic minority lawyers are under-represented at almost every level of the judiciary."

The working party's report said that there was "sufficient concern about the appointments system to cast doubt on the benefits of merely encouraging under-represented groups to apply when the system itself is perceived as being opaque, unattractive and unfair".

Last week Lord Irvine published his first annual report of judicial appointments, which he said showed that the position was improving, with more members of ethnic minorities and women lawyers represented in the judiciary.

A spokesman for his department said the Lord Chancellor would consider the Bar Council/Law Society report in conjunction with the results of the official inquiry into the appointment of judges and QCs that was being conducted, at the Lord Chancellor's request, by Sir Leonard Peach.