Way of choosing judges is 'biased and outdated'

Ministers are considering an immediate freeze on the appointment of High Court judges after a legal watchdog denounced the selection system as biased and outdated.

The Commission for Judicial Appointments (CJA) painted a damning picture of the old-boy network in the elevation of judges to senior ranks. It said the judges were drawn from a "very narrow social and educational background" and the procedure for choosing them was "opaque, outdated and not demonstrably based upon merit".

Although the Government is overhauling the selection system next year, the CJA said it was so flawed the moratorium should begin now. It said: "We would be concerned to see further High Court judges selection processes on the basis of the present system, which we have found to be seriously lacking in transparency and accountability." The CJA said there appeared to be a "substantial built-in bias" towards those already Queen's Counsels, with circuit judges and solicitors far less likely to be promoted. It denounced the dual system in which candidates make a formal application or are nominated for promotion with a so-called "tap on the shoulder".

Of the 175 candidates for High Court in 2003, 83 were nominated and 92 applied. Five of the nine candidates pro-moted by the Lord Chancellor were nominees. He had nominated three of them. The CJA said all candidates should submit applications.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs said the recommendations reinforced the Government's case for an independent judicial appointments commission.