Judges to go early - Labour

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LABOUR proposes to make judges more representative of society by forcing them to retire earlier and by advertising all vacancies to open competition.

A policy document drawn up for the working party under the legal affairs spokesman, Paul Boateng, and discussed in secret this weekend in Gateshead by the National Policy Forum, would take away from the Lord Chancellor the right to appoint judges. Instead, they would be chosen by a new quango, to be called the Judicial Appointments and Training Commission.

The retirement age for judges would be dropped from 70 to around 65, and the new quango could dismiss judges who were not up to the job. At present, the Lord Chancellor can dismiss judges in lower courts for misconduct or "incapacity", but High Court judges can only be removed by a vote of both Houses of Parliament. Under the Labour plans, the new quango could decide to let judges stay beyond the new retirement age.

The document, which invites comments from within the party and from the legal professions by 31 May, says: "The legal system has got to work for all the citizens rather than just for the privileged few, and must command public confidence. Neither the legal professions nor the judiciary are properly representative of the society they purport to serve.

"Only one in five solicitors in private practice is a woman, and only 2 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Only 1 in 20 circuit judges is female, and there are believed to be only three judges from an ethnic minority."

The Lord Chancellor's department will begin advertising judicial vacancies at circuit and district judge level this year. Labour would extend the advertising up to High Court and Court of Appeal judges, and presumably even the 10 Law Lords. Labour believes that the present system, under which senior judges are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on the advice of senior judges, perpetuates a narrow and male social lite.

It would encourage "a wider field of applicants, to ensure the most able candidates are considered".

Greater numbers of solicitors and academic lawyers, at the moment rarely appointed to the bench, would be encouraged to compete for the jobs.

Labour's document says it would appoint "a significant proportion" of judges, including senior judges, at an earlier age.

A higher proportion would be expected to be appointed younger, and more should start their careers in the crown and county courts.