Lord Woolf hits out at dangers of legal reform

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The country's most senior judge accused the Government yesterday of risking hundreds of years of unwritten constitution by abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor.

Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, said that the decision to end the post - founded 1,400 years ago - without consulting the judiciary had created a "vacuum" in the constitution.

He said the speed of the reforms arising out of last month's cabinet reshuffle "raised questions as to whether our constitution provides the protection it should for our constitutional institutions".

The end of the historic post, which is to accompany the establishment of a Supreme Court and a body to appoint judges, was announced by the Prime Minister as part of his widely criticised cabinet shake-up. Lord Falconer of Thoroton was appointed Lord Chancellor, a post to be replaced by a Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs with responsibility for pushing through the revolutionary reforms.

"When the office of Lord Chancellor is abolished, the question will arise as to who is to take on the Lord Chancellor's role of speaking up for the judiciary in Government and Parliament," Lord Woolf said in a speech at the Lord Mayor of London's annual judges' dinner last night.

"If it is intended that the secretary of state will play this role, then it will be critical to ensure that those appointed as secretary of state are appropriately qualified in terms of background and experience to fill the vacuum which will otherwise exist."

He went on: "It must be a cause for concern that a decision to abolish such an historic office, with its pivotal role in the administration of justice as head of the judiciary, can be taken without any consultation with the judiciary."

Speaking at the same event, at Mansion House in the City, Lord Falconer said that the reforms would be "a clear break with the past".

He said: "For a long time now, fundamental constitutional reform of the office of Lord Chancellor has been urged not just by academic writer but by practising lawyers with senior judges in the vanguard.

"Indeed so many people have been thumping on this particular door of reform demanding admittance that it is frustrating that now we have opened the door there are some who have tumbled through, claiming we have opened the door too quickly."

Lord Woolf was also critical of what he described as "frightening proposals as to pensions which, if they are not modified, could gravely damage recruitment to the judiciary and lead to mass exodus from the existing judiciary."

Under proposals from the Inland Revenue to change the tax benefits for pensions, workers approaching retirement age will be encouraged to take up their pensions before April 2005.

This, Lord Woolf said, would encourage members of the senior judiciary to vacate their posts and would also act as a disincentive to high-earning lawyers who already had to take a drop in earnings when they joined the bench.