Senior judges turn on Major

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The Independent Online
A furious, behind-the-scenes row has broken out between some of Britain's senior judges and the Government over the "political" appointment of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, made clear on the fringe of the Conservative conference in Bournemouth yesterday that there is no love lost between himself and the judges - who have repeatedly ruled against him on issues of judicial review.

But The Independent has been told that after Lord Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Bingham's predecessor, announced his decision to retire on grounds of ill-health in May, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, asked senior judges for their view on the succession.

In a canvass of 17 of the Lord Justices who sit in the Court of Appeal, 14 opted for Sir Christopher Rose, an experienced criminal judge, and two for Lord Woolf, who took over as Master of Rolls when Lord Bingham was promoted. One was undecided.

That clear-cut majority verdict was then passed back to Lord Mackay.

But, according to senior judicial sources, when Lord Taylor subsequently met the Prime Minister, he was shocked to learn that Sir Thomas Bingham had been appointed - and that John Major said he had never been told of the views of the Lords Justice.

But the judges are stunned and shocked, and the decision to override their views - having asked for a canvass of views to be taken - has created such a row that the Lord Chancellor has been forced to enter into acrimonious correspondence, in defence of his position.

The appointment of the Lord Chief Justice is technically made by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, but after consultation with the Lord Chancellor. The appointment of Lord Bingham and Lord Woolf to the two top jobs in the professional judiciary in England and Wales were highly sensitive politically because of the judges' attacks on the Government's sentencing plans and attacks from Conservative MPs on judicial review decisions in the courts. There is said to have been an unspoken understanding that Mr Major would not seek to contradict Lord Mackay's advice.

Lord Mackay is said to believe that in Bingham and Lord Woolf, who is seeking to reform the civil law system, he has found the perfect reformist team that is prepared to challenge traditional orthodoxies and practices. Part of the judges' anger could be the fear that Lord Bingham will back the extension of rights of audience in the Crown Courts to lawyers employed by the Crown Prosecution Service, a development to which Lord Taylor was strongly opposed and would have vetoed.

But suggestions that Lord Bingham might give ministers less trouble than Lord Taylor are misplaced. He has strongly defended the judges' development of judicial review of official action, and was one of the first judges to call for incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. In his first press conference last Friday he showed himself clearly at odds with Mr Howard on a range of law and order issues.

The antipathy to the judges is so commonplace in the Tory ranks that when Mr Howard attended a right-wing Conservative Way Forward fringe meeting in Bournemouth yesterday, he was asked whether they should not be elected to the bench, as in the United States.

The Home Secretary said: "I think that would be a solution too far. I am not in favour of the election of judges; I don't think that's a precedent we should follow. No, I think we just have to be persistent."

Judges' in profile, page 2