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New Bill of Rights could be 'hugely constructive', chief law officer says

Speculation Geoffrey Cox is angling for role as head of constitutional reform commission

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 12 February 2020 18:07 GMT
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(Getty)

The replacement of the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights could be “hugely constructive”, the government’s chief law officer has suggested.

And Geoffrey Cox also sparked concerns about political interference in the courts by raising the possibility of a parliamentary committee carrying out interviews of judges before their appointment to the Supreme Court.

The comments prompted speculation that Cox, who has been tipped for the sack in Thursday’s reshuffle, is angling for the job of leading the commission on constitutional reform promised in the Conservative manifesto.

But Downing Street indicated that the attorney general's comments were not a signal of government plans for reform.

Speaking at the Institute for Government in London, Mr Cox declined to say whether he expected to lose his post, saying: “It has been an enormous privilege to do this job. But it is a decision for the prime minister.”

But the QC appeared to suggest that Boris Johnson may struggle to find a high-ranking lawyer to replace him, telling the meeting: “One of the problems that we have at the moment is that our political life is not, as it once used to, attracting senior professionals from the legal profession… The attorney general and the solicitor general’s roles do depend on people of weight and seniority in the profession being willing to go into politics.”

Setting out the argument for a Bill of Rights, Mr Cox said that the European Convention of Human Rights - which was enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act - had not won the “affection” of the British people.

“I don’t actually think that, save among certain circles, the convention attracts the same affection, do you?” he said. “I think probably not.

“But when we speak of our own Bill of Rights, from the 17th century, there is a genuine affection for it.

‘So if we could produce that sense of ownership of the ordinary people for their Bill of Rights then I think that would be a hugely constructive thing to do.”

Asked if politicians should have a role in choosing Supreme Court justices, he said: “Politically appointed judges are completely off the table.

“However, there’s a case for looking at how Supreme Court judges are appointed… There’s a committee of the Canadian parliament that carries out interviews.”

Supreme Court judges ruled against Boris Johnson's prorogation of parliament in September (AP)

He suggested that the involvement of a joint committee of the Commons and Lords might bolster public confidence in the appointments

His comments come shortly after the Supreme Court infuriated the prime minister by ruling his suspension of parliament unlawful last autumn.

Labour’s shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti said: “Whether it’s Brexit or judicial appointments, it would seem that this government is just crazy about ‘Canada style’ deals.

“Geoffrey Cox appeased No 10 this morning with suggested political interviews for Supreme Court judges and threats to judicial review and the Human Rights Act. But a bucketful of maple syrup won’t sweeten the threat that his far-right government poses to the rule of law.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The manifesto set out that the government is intending to look at aspects of the constitution but I’m not going to pre-empt that work. It is not yet under way.”

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