The Leveson Inquiry’s examination of the “unlawful practices within News International and other newspapers” will be shelved or re-assigned to another senior judge if Sir Brian Leveson is appointed Lord Chief Justice next year, senior judicial sources have told The Independent.
Lord Justice Leveson, an appeal court judge and currently head of the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, is understood to have told senior judicial colleagues that he intends to apply for the job as head of the judiciary when it is formally advertised later this year or early next year.
He is already being described as “a strong candidate” by some leading judges and barristers.
The Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, will head the process of selecting the successor to Lord Judge. A panel will be formed that comprises the president of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, a lay member of the JAC, and the current Lord Chief Justice.
However before there is a final confirmation of who gets the top job, the decision will have to be approved by David Cameron and the Queen, as head of state.
It is expected that if Sir Brian gets the job, he will be informed in April next year and will formally take over from Lord Judge when the new legal year begins on October 1.
Part I of the inquiry’s findings will be delivered this Thursday. It will be down to the Prime Minister and ultimately Parliament if the inquiry’s recommendations become law.
If the Leveson Report recommends a tough statutory role for press regulation, Mr Cameron may find it difficult to fully back the report and keep all of his party onside.
Part II of the press inquiry, described by Lord Justice Leveson as the "who-did-what-to-whom” section, is still scheduled to take part after all criminal proceedings relating to phone hacking and bribery charges have concluded.
However with the criminal process likely to last well into 2014, it would not be possible for Sir Brian to hold the post of Lord Chief Justice and devote time to Part II of the Leveson Inquiry.
A decision by Downing Street would then need to be taken to ask Sir Brian to nominate another judge to take over his own inquiry. However senior judicial sources have told The Independent that this would be regarded as “highly unusual circumstances” with the more likely option being a decision by Downing Street to state that the criminal courts process had effectively removed the need for Leveson II.
The competition to get the job as the top judge is expected to be fierce. Following changes to the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which removed some of the judicial power of the Lord Chancellor, the role of Lord Chief Justice has widened.
Other candidates likely to be in the running include Sir Brian’s court of appeal colleague, Lady Justice Hallet; the vice president of the criminal division, Lord Justice Hughes; and the Queen’s Bench Division president, Lord Justice Thomas.
The leading media barrister, Hugh Tomlinson QC, told the Legalweek website: “Lord Judge’s successor needs to be someone who can provide leadership for the whole judiciary and is able to serve at least five years. Now that the retirement age has been reduced to 70, the pool of candidates has been reduced. “
Sir Brian will be 64 next year.