Draft Maximum Number of Judges Order 2002

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I would like to hear the Minister's views on the proposals in the context of the Government's overall civil law reforms—the so-called Woolf reforms.

I understood—I should declare that I am a solicitor—that the idea behind the reforms was that there would be less cost in the system, that the system would be more open and efficient, and that that, in itself, would mean that fewer cases came to court, because they would have been settled earlier. In that way the system would become speedier. Earlier on, however, I understood the Minister to say that what is actually happening is that increased case loads are coming to the courts, that those cases are taking longer to go through the courts, and that pressures on the system are growing. Presumably that is why we need

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more judges. Will the Minister tell us whether that indicates the failure of the Woolf reforms?

10.43 am

Yvette Cooper: I shall try to respond to the points in turn. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked how many cases that go to the Court of Appeal raise Human Rights Act issues. I do not have the figures in front of me, although they are available on the Lord Chancellor's Department's website, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with them. We have done an analysis of the number of cases that raise Human Rights Act concerns. Relative to what was predicted by some and to the anxieties raised at the time of that Act, it is not the case that the courts have been flooded with such cases. Of course, there have been some and we have information on them, but there has not been a huge explosion of such cases—

Mr. Burnett: When the Minister writes to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, or to anyone on the Committee, will she circulate the letter among all its members?

Yvette Cooper: I will happily circulate that information.

The second point was whether the figure should be 40 rather than 37. That is not merited by current analysis on the basis of the pressures that are in place. The Lord Chancellor does not anticipate having to come back to Parliament in the near future to raise the numbers further.

As I said earlier, we already have the flexibility to have part-time judges and to have the use of High Court judges sitting in the Court of Appeal and of retired Court of Appeal judges, which will give some flexibility around the margins. On the basis of the current information we do not anticipate that we will need to go further than 37, although that is something that we have always to consider.

On the issue of how judges work and the efficiency of the system, I welcome the points made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) about the high quality of our judiciary and the work that we do. The judiciary have the use of judicial assistants who can assist in research and all judges also have a clerk to assist with papers. The Royal Courts of Justice have an extensive administrative staff, part of whose duties are to assist the judiciary.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is an issue about information technology. The judiciary, with all parts of the criminal justice system, is in need of new IT infrastructure and equipment and there is an ongoing programme to introduce it, but it will take some time because many parts of the criminal justice system are in need of new modern technology.

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Minister for what she said. I am sure that she asked her officials the very questions that I put to her. I have not heard any rumblings from judges in the Court of Appeal but I have heard from the odd High Court judge that they do not have sufficient back-up properly to discharge their complex and difficult duties. I hope that the

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Minister will look into the problem as a matter of urgency.

Yvette Cooper: Certainly. There are always considerations to make about the best use of resources to support complex legal and court systems. There will always be concerns about resources and back-up in different parts of the system. It is something that we keep under review and, as I said, we anticipate wanting to make further improvements in future, especially in IT support.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Sir Colin Campbell's report and the work done by the Commission for Judicial Appointments, which the Lord Chancellor set up, first, to investigate individual complaints on the appointment of High Court judges or QCs and, secondly, to make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor on the appointments process. So far, it has investigated 10 complaints, six in the report that was published relatively recently, of which three were upheld, one was partially upheld and two were not upheld.

Mr. Burnett: Who upheld what at which tribunal and how were the representations dealt with?

Yvette Cooper: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the annual report produced by the Commission for Judicial Appointments, which sets out the processes and conclusions in detail? It also raises specific points about the audit trail. The Lord Chancellor welcomed the report and we have already dealt with some of its concerns and are working with the commission to deal with others. The report pays tribute to the high quality of the judiciary and finds no reason to believe that those appointed are of insufficient merit or possess inadequate qualifications to do the job.

Other issues that now require attention include fairness in the system and diversity and equality, about which the Lord Chancellor has expressed concern. The report also mentions the appointment of the judiciary, particularly silks, and so forth. We shall reflect seriously on any further work and subsequent reports. The Lord Chancellor welcomes the Commission's work and looks forward to receiving further reports in due course.

Mr. Burnett: I am sorry to keep interrupting, but does the Minister envisage a more independent Commission for Judicial Appointments? Will she also say a few words on confirmatory hearings at the highest level—the Lords Justices, about whom we are speaking today, and the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary?

Yvette Cooper: The Lord Chancellor keeps an open mind on such issues. He is keen to hear the considered recommendations of the Judicial Appointments Commission. He would not want to anticipate its conclusions or to make radical changes to the current system without ascertaining them. The same applies to confirmatory hearings.

I was living in the United States during the Clarence Thomas hearings. It was a bizarre way of deciding who should be a judge on the Supreme Court. Many of us would want to reflect seriously on aspects of that selection process and would not want to replicate it

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here. As I said, we welcome any further reflections from the Commission for Judicial Appointments.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether the Woolf reforms had made any impact. They have made a substantial impact on workload, reducing pressures in many sectors. The number of civil cases has decreased. Another factor in the reduction is the filter provided by the civil procedure rules requirement to apply for permission to appeal, and the diversion of less complex appeals to the High Court since the passage of the Access to Justice Act 1999. At the same time, however, an increase in the complexity of cases for the Court of Appeal has arisen, the number of High Court commercial appeals has doubled and the number of appeals to the administrative court has increased by more than 50 per cent. Thus we have seen a marked decrease in county court and interlocutory

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appeals, while pressures such as the complexity of cases work in the opposite direction. We should learn from the success of the Woolf reforms and apply what have learned to all parts of the legal system. The current picture does not suggest that the Woolf reforms failed: quite the reverse.

I hope that I have dealt with all the points made in the debate. We are asking for a relatively straightforward increase for straightforward reasons.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Maximum Number of Judges Order 2002.

The Committee rose at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. Roger (Chairman)
Burnett, Mr.
Burnham, Andy
Cooper, Yvette
Djanogly, Mr.
Ellman, Mrs.
Gerrard, Mr.
Gibson, Dr.
Hawkins, Mr.
Kemp, Mr.
Lloyd, Mr.
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Prisk, Mr.

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Prepared 29 October 2002