Woman goes to war on Lord Chancellor's `old boys' network'

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The Lord Chancellor, the country's leading judicial official, is being taken to an industrial tribunal in an embarrassingly open-and- shut case of operating an illegal old boys' network.

As Lord Irvine of Lairg was himself appointed Lord Chancellor as a leading member of Tony Blair's old boys' network, the charge that he appointed an old friend, Garry Hart, as his adviser in the Lord Chancellor's Department came as no surprise.

But the challenge goes further than that. If the Lord Chancellor were to lose the case, due later this year, the Government would in future be prevented from employing its friends and allies in key roles and would be required to advertise all vacancies.

It could also face paying substantial compensation to Jane Coker, the solicitor bringing the action.

The proceedings have been issued against the department, complaining that the manner of the appointment was discriminatory under the terms of Labour's Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

Ms Coker, a senior solicitor with a North London practice, said it was a great pity Labour had talked about equal opportunities in Opposition and not practised it in office.

A statement by Jane Deighton, the solicitor representing Ms Coker, said: "The proceedings allege that Mr Hart, senior partner of a City firm of solicitors and a middle-aged white man, was appointed because he was known to the Lord Chancellor. Advertising and proper selection did not take place.

"The applicant to the Industrial Tribunal, Jane Coker, did not know about the job and therefore could not apply.

"She would have been a formidable candidate ... The proceedings are a fundamental challenge to the practice new governments have of employing their friends and allies once elected. This practice, the proceedings claim, is illegal."

The chances of the Lord Chancellor surviving his latest scrape look remote. His department has not even bothered to reply to the legal interrogation that has been sent in under the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act; suggesting it has no reply to offer. Ms Deighton said: "It is very simple nowadays: if your associates are primarily men, then it is going to discriminate against women, if you choose your adviser from amongst your associates."

The same would apply in terms of racial discrimination, if all of Lord Irvine's associates were white. As for the Westminster and Whitehall charge that Mr Blair is also guilty of similar discrimination, having made many appointments from among "Tone's crones", Ms Deighton said: "It is particularly wrong to have a clique of old associates of the Prime Minister running the country: that is anti-democratic. Lord Irvine was Tony Blair's tutor; Charlie Falconer, the Solicitor-General, is an old friend of Tony Blair's.

"What democracy demands is that people best suited to the jobs are appointed to them, not people who happen to be known to those in power. And that is also what the law requires."

Ms Coker added: "No, this is not sour grapes. What it is saying is that the job of special adviser to the Lord Chancellor, at a time when the Lord Chancellor is looking very closely at the way in which the law is accessible to people from less privileged backgrounds, and the poor, is an important position and I would have expected him to seek to ensure that he appointed the best person for the job."