Letter: Replacing the Lord Chancellor

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The Independent Online
Sir: Fiona Bawdon asks: 'Do we really need a Lord Chancellor?' (Law, 17 June). Labour's view is that we do not, as his office is currently defined. Rather, we see a newly constituted Ministry of Justice, accountable to the Commons, assuming many of his responsibilities in an expanded role.

The Lord Chancellor's present tripartite role as head of the judiciary, Speaker of the House of Lords and highest-ranking cabinet minister makes a mockery of the separation of powers. In the past, this anomaly was academic. The Lord Chancellor's minimal executive functions posed no threat to his relationship with the judges. The situation now is very different.

The nature of the Lord Chancellorship has changed dramatically over the past quarter of a century. The Courts Act 1971 transformed the Lord Chancellor's office into a fully fledged government department. Lord Mackay's budget for this financial year is pounds 2.253bn of taxpayers' money, and yet he is neither a member of, nor accountable to, the House of Commons.

Moreover, executive functions and Treasury considerations now preoccupy the Lord Chancellor to such an extent that even a person of integrity and talent can no longer command the confidence of the public, the legal profession or judicial colleagues. Lord Mackay has forfeited the respect of each of these groups as his office has become subordinated to the dictates of the Treasury and bankrupt Thatcherite ideology, to which he remains staunchly loyal.

The Lord Chancellor is a Tory cabinet minister like any other, a political appointee with a large departmental budget. His present ministerial role is not compatible with either the headship of the judiciary or membership of the House of Lords.

Labour will take executive functions away from the Lord Chancellor and give them to a Ministry of Justice headed by an MP and subject to the scrutiny of a House of Commons select committee. In addition, Labour will create an independent Judicial Appointments Commission to guarantee the independence of the judges from the executive.

These reforms will lay the foundations for a modern, tangible constitutional framework for the United Kingdom; a framework within which the rights of the individual citizen and consumer will be enhanced, and within which the individual will be empowered to defend and enforce those rights. Constructing that framework entails changes to the office of the Lord Chancellor. That great office has undergone many changes in the past. The time is ripe for another.

Yours faithfully,


MP for Brent South (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

20 June, 1994

The writer is Labour's spokesperson on legal affairs.