Wanted: the sharpest legal minds in the country

The search is on to find three Justices to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court

The shortlist is a closely guarded secret and the successful candidates will not be known for a couple of months but some of the country's sharpest brains have just been interviewed for one of its most elite jobs – Supreme Court justice.

The highest court in the United Kingdom has three vacancies for what many would consider the very pinnacle of their career, the chance to preside over the most contentious cases and make decisions that will affect the law of the land.

For the majority of people in the country this eminent dozen are the last guardians of their fate. While it is possible to take an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court's decisions are so respected by the Strasbourg judges that most cases fail to make the grade.

While the applicants' identities are not revealed, educated speculation has been rife, and here The Independent lists those considered to be the prime candidates and assesses their chances of success.

The positions have been created by the departure of Lord Dyson upon his appointment as Master of the Rolls, and the impending retirements of Lords Walker and Hope in March and June respectively. Due to convention, Lord Hope's successor is likely to be another Scot to maintain a requirement of two justices from north of the border.

None of the remaining judges is due to retire until 2018 so there will be another five years before one of the coveted slots becomes available, and competition is fierce.

The race is made all the more interesting by the recent resignation of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, whose position will fall vacant in September. Rumours are that some of the Supreme Court candidates may withdraw their applications, gambling that they will be successful in the running for the post of the country's top judge.

The current justices are almost exclusively male, public school and Oxbridge-educated and the shortlist is no different. But the need for increased diversity in the judiciary is a hot topic and, while there do not appear to be any black or Asian candidates in the frame, there is huge pressure on the selection commission, chaired by Lord Neuberger, to double the number of female justices to two.

Lady Hale, currently the only woman, is keen to see more female members brought in, insisting they would enhance the court's ability to look at cases from varied perspectives. While Lord Sumption has argued that applicants should be considered on merit alone. Due to the age and experience of those in the running their make-up is more reflective of society 30 or 40 years ago and there is a need, he said recently, for patience.

Few need apply. The desired candidate must have an extremely eminent background and "display to an exceptional degree clarity of thought, an ability to work under pressure and willingness to learn about new areas of the law". They will also be expected to have "social awareness and understanding of the contemporary world".

The window of opportunity is slim. Few attain the required level of experience before their 60s while those over 65 could be deemed too old, with retirement set at 70.

For £206,857 plus a pension, the court's 12 justices will share out approximately 80 cases a year, sitting as five or seven in each case, nine when the issue is of extreme importance. They tend to be in court four days a week during term time with the rest of the time dedicated to research.

The successful candidates will not be known until February.

Competition for highest court: supreme contenders

The Rt Hon Lord Justice (Sir Brian) Leveson
Age: 63
Current position: Court of Appeal judge
Chances of being selected: 8/10
Lord Levson's chairmanship of the public inquiry into press standards has been highly praised, and this erudite and urbane judge is a strong favourite. He made his name in high-profile criminal cases and is chairman of the Sentencing Council. However, he too has made no secret of his strong ambitions to become Lord Chief Justice and it remains to be seen whether he opts to pull his candidacy for the Supreme Court to focus on the top job.

The Rt Hon Lady Justice (Heather) Hallett
Age: 63
Current position: Court of Appeal judge.
Chances: 8/10
Lady Hallett, pulled no punches recently when describing the sexism she encountered as a young barrister in the 1970s. She gained public prominence and great respect for the efficient and sensitive manner in which she handled the inquest into the 52 victims of the July 2005 bombings.

The Rt Hon Lady Justice (Mary) Arden
Age: 66
Current position: Court of Appeal judge
Chances: 5/10
Should Lady Arden be appointed, she would be joining her husband Lord Mance on the bench. She has shown a strong interest in the Supreme Court, having reportedly already applied at least once for a post and, at 65 this would be her last chance.

Addressing the Association of Women Barristers' she said she was extremely disappointed with the number of female judges appointed to the High Court.

The Rt Hon Lord Justice (Bernard) Rix
Age: 68
Current position: Court of Appeal judge
Chances: 4/10
A man of many interests, Lord Rix recently turned his attentions to caravans. In a Court of Appeal planning dispute earlier this year, he gave a brief history lesson on etymology of caravans at the end of the written judgment. He attracted criticism when he overturned life terms, replacing them with detention for public protection, for two "feral" Cheshire teenagers who terrorised a vulnerable man before beating him to death. Highly regarded, his age may count against him.

The Rt Hon Lord Justice (John) Laws
Age: 67
Current position: Court of Appeal judge
Chances: 6/10
Known for his controversial and forthright judgments, Lord Laws is viewed by some as a bit of a loose cannon, unafraid to speak his mind publicly, and is seen as a judge who would be active in challenging the Government. An outspoken and progressive constitutional theorist, he is most noted for his academic writings on parliamentary sovereignty and his strong views that common law principles must override what Parliament states. At 67, this would be his last chance at the job.

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