Legal selection system is corrupt, admit judges

Lord Chancellor's Department report condemns secret soundings
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Judges and senior lawyers admit that the system under which they are appointed is riddled with corruption and open to widespread abuse.

Judges and senior lawyers admit that the system under which they are appointed is riddled with corruption and open to widespread abuse.

In a damning report produced by the Lord Chancellor's Department, it is likened to "the old-fashioned class or caste system" by many of the judges and QCs interviewed.

The findings will deeply embarrass the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who has repeatedly rejected calls to end the "secret soundings", whereby judges and senior lawyers are consulted on the suitability of judicial candidates.

Responses from 137 sitting judges or senior lawyers showed a "clear consensus" for the appointments processes to be "based on openness, objectivity, and selection on merit rather than patronage". It is the first detailed research to include judges.

Of the 137 respondents only 10 said no changes were needed to the system. A total of 52 were interviewed face-to-face.

One judge said: "I don't know what the criteria are for silk... maybe there is a document somewhere that I haven't seen but it seems to me that it depends on who you know, what committee you sit on rather than anything else. There doesn't seem to be a system of interview. It seems to be on general reputation and I think that is unreliable."

Many of those who responded expressed concern that the present system deterred applications from women and the ethnic minorities. Women account for 11 per cent and ethnic minorities for 1.7 per cent of all judges in England and Wales, according to figures from 1999.

A serious concern among those consulted was the domination of an "elite group of chambers" in both London and the regions from which most appointments were made.

One white barrister admitted: "I'm the wrong person to ask about the difficulties in applying for silk. I mean in these chambers usually everyone gets silk, usually the first time of asking and everyone becomes made a judge. It is a sort of 'golden road'."

The report's authors, Kate Malleson, of the London School of Economics, and Fareda Banda, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, said many respondents wanted proper recruitment of under-represented groups.

The report said: "The need for the active encouragement of good candidates and the adoption of processes which are, and can be seen to be, more open and objective were most commonly proposed as ways of improving the accessibility and fairness of the processes."

However, the authors noted that there was widespread support for efforts by the Lord Chancellor to increase the number of women and ethnic minority judges. One respondent described it as a vicious circle, saying: "Black and Asian barristers don't get the work because they are considered to be incompetent and because they don't get the work they are considered to be incompetent."

The respondents felt that there was a need for a judicial appointment commission with many favouring a broad range of membership including judges, lawyers and civil servants. The authors said that the growing concern about the unrepresentative background of the judiciary had become more acute because of the "ten-fold" increase in the size of the judiciary since the 1970s.

Last year Sir Leonard Peach produced a report on the process by which judicial and silk appointments are made, commissioned by the Lord Chancellor.