Legal overhaul threatens the public's liberty, warn judges

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Hastily prepared plans to reform the legal constitution could threaten the future liberty of the citizen as well as the independence of the judiciary, the body that represents judges in England and Wales warned yesterday.

The Government's decision to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor after 1,400 years had left a dangerous vacuum at the heart of the balance of power between the Executive and the judiciary, the judges said in their response to the Government's reform programme, announced in June.

Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice and most senior judge in England and Wales, called for a "constitutional settlement'' that would safeguard the independence of the judiciary and protect the interests of the public. He said:"The public have a strong interest that arrangements are put in place to ensure that the judges are safeguarded. This is because the individual liberties of the public depend, at the last resort, on the independence of the judiciary, particularly where there are issues between individual citizens and the Government.''

In its 87-page response paper the Judges Council asked for legislation to "enshrine in statute'' the duty of ministers to uphold the independence of the judiciary.

Lord Woolf said ministers and judges had to respect each other's position in the constitution. What was unacceptable was "populist ministers'' making "vigorous attacks'' in the media on an individual judge.

He also spoke of the need to introduce constitutional protection from the influence of the Executive over judges who might be perceived as being unsympathetic to the policies of the Government.

Identifying a possible future scenario, he said: "Let's take a very serious situation where a particular judge has given two or three decisions which the Government did not like.'' He suggested that without proper safeguards the judge might be "taken away from doing judicial review cases in the future''. He said the subtlety of the relationship between the judiciary and the Executive had to be recognised, and that governments "have their agenda''. He added: "It can be very inconvenient having a judiciary which is holding up their policies.'' Lord Woolf said his comments were not directed towards the present Government, but at a future administration that could take advantage of the absence of a truly independent judiciary.

The council, which represents the views of all judges and magistrates, said the principal concerns of its members sprung from the vacuum left by the decision to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor. "As head of the judiciary and a very senior member of the Government, the Lord Chancellor has occupied a unique constitutional role binding together the three arms of the State; the legislator, the executive and the judiciary,'' the council says in its response paper.

"The abolition of the office creates the need for a new constitutional settlement and for the respective roles of the Executive and the judiciary to be set out in a legislative framework.'' The paper adds: "The independence of the judiciary has to be preserved in the interests of the public.''

Lord Woolf said he was given just minutes' notice of the plans that would abolish the head of the judiciary and set up a supreme court in one stroke of the minister's pen.