Lord Irvine intervenes to encourage gay judges

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The Independent Online

THE LORD CHANCELLOR has personally intervened to change the judicial appointments system in a way that would encourage more gay lawyers to become judges.

THE LORD CHANCELLOR has personally intervened to change the judicial appointments system in a way that would encourage more gay lawyers to become judges.

Lord Irvine of Lairg said that he had changed the application procedure, which previously forced lawyers to declare their sexual orientation when they applied for judicial posts.

The Lord Chancellor has changed the Òjudicial application formÓ which asks lawyers to state their sexual orientation. The inclusion of this question is seen as a breach of equal opportunity guidelines.

He told the Bar Council's annual conference in London: ÒI promised to state on the application form for judicial appointments that sexual orientation need never be declared. On coming to office, I had the application forms changed. Sexual orientation does not have to be declared.Ó

Earlier this year, Lord Irvine said when he announced a review of the system for appointing judges and QCs, that Òhomosexuality should not be a bar to appointmentÓ. But this is the first time he has acknowledged intervening in the appointments system in favour of homosexuals.

A spokesman for the Bar said it was impossible to say how many of its members were gay as it did not ask them to make such a declaration.

Many lawyers believe the only fair way of making sure sexual orientation is not an issue in deciding who should become a judge is to abandon the Òsecret soundingsÓ. This is the system used by the Lord Chancellor's Department to make use of confidential advice from judges, barristers and solicitors about the suitability of candidates for the judiciary.

Last week, the Law Society called for an end to the use of Òsecret soundingsÓ concerning the appointment of all judges and QCs. The Law Society has decided to boycott the present system.

Robert Sayer, who is the president of the Law Society, said: ÒA system of secret soundings is entirely inconsistent with open and objective recruitment practices.Ó

The Law Society voiced its disapproval in its report of the Lord Chancellor's inquiry into the appointment system: ÒIt [the Law Society] has considerable difficulties in participating in a process which was in origin designed for the appointment of a small number of judges from a very limited pool, by a Lord Chancellor who probably knew all the applicants.Ó

Mr Sayer said the QC system not only discriminated against solicitors, but most barristers too. ÒA system of secret soundings is entirely inconsistent with open and objective recruitment practices,Ó the society's president said. Sir Leonard Peach's report into QCs and judicial appointments will be published by the end of the year. High earning QCs are to top up the incomes of trainee barristers who have to live below the minimum wage. The move follows a landmark ruling in the High Court last month in which a pupil barrister won the right to be paid the minimum salary.

Dan Brennan QC, the chairman of the Bar, said that a compulsory levy on all senior barristers was the best way to make sure trainee barristers earned a proper wage.

About 43 per cent of pupils are either not funded or paid below the minimum wage and often have to rely on parental support or earnings from part-time work elsewhere. Mr Brennan said action had to be taken to find the necessary resources and that a compulsory levy was the best solution.