Independence of judges may be lost, Bar warns

Tony Blair's sweeping changes to the judiciary could further undermine the independence of judges to make way for his "placemen", the chairman of the Bar Council warned yesterday.

Following a widely criticised reshuffle, the core of which was the creation of a new Department for Constitutional Affairs, Matthias Kelly - who heads the body representing barristers in England and Wales - said the decisions to axe the post of Lord Chancellor and to set up a Supreme Court and a Judicial Appointments Commission were "difficult to digest".

Echoing the anger of the Tories and some Labour MPs, he said: "While in principle I welcome the appointment of a Judicial Appointments Commission, it's the detail and it's really the question of who's going to choose these people who choose the judges.

"If, for example, it's going to be party hacks or political people, then we are into major problems ... A lot of us are very concerned because our recent experience with these attacks upon the independence of the judiciary doesn't give us a great deal of heart.

"We are very concerned about it because right at the heart of any democracy is that independence of the judiciary," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The speed at which Mr Blair has set up the new department, which also takes in the former Wales and Scotland offices - and the lack of detail available - has caused a rumpus at Westminster.

The shadow deputy prime minister, David Davis, added: "We for centuries have had the most independent judiciary in the world. There was no consultation, no green paper, no white paper, no discussion at all."

Mr Davis accused the Prime Minister of treating the judicial system and the constitution as his "personal bauble" and "another pawn on his Cabinet board".

Both he and Mr Kelly insisted the lack of details about the changes suggested that they had not been properly thought through and, Mr Davis added, were a product of a row between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett - a charge rejected by Downing Street.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman, while admitting some of the details were "hazy", said: "This was not put together at the last minute because another plan had been thwarted. This was always what the Prime Minister wanted to do."

The proposals did win some support yesterday. The Constitution Unit, an independent think-tank on constitutional reform, welcomed the new department. Its director, Professor Robert Hazell, said the office of Lord Chancellor had been a "constitutional anachronism" for which no one should shed any tears andthat the decision to merge the Scotland and Wales offices was a "step in the right direction".