Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it clear that what may be unintended consequences are not the ones that he had in mind. His amendment is not restricted to the circumstances that are discussed in paragraph 3.53 of the report, or to solicitors, barristers or officers of the court. It is an all-inclusive application of a requirement on certain bodies in relation to currently self-regulated professions.

Mr. Blunt: Those professions rightly see themselves as independent. If they want their independence to be protected in law, as the amendment would ensure, the Bill should give them that independence. All parties in Northern Ireland share my conclusion. The Northern Ireland Assembly's Ad Hoc Committee report on the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill and the criminal justice review implementation plan highlighted paragraphs 50 and 51 of the Law Society's evidence. It concluded in recommendation 2:

    ''That a new clause be inserted which acknowledges and safeguards the continuing independence and impartiality of the legal profession.''

I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister's reply, as the professions and all parties in Northern Ireland request the insertion of a new clause, as do the Opposition.

If there was a genuine consultation process, this must have been an oversight, or perhaps the matter was not considered in those terms. The review group did not conclude that an assertion about the independence of the legal profession was wrong or improper. It set down duties with regard to the independence of the prosecutorial system, as well as the judiciary, which appear later in the Bill. It strikes me as odd that there is not a duty on those who administer justice to sustain the independence of the legal profession. It had not occurred to me that there were significant arguments against such independence, which the Minister's interventions imply.

I look forward to the debate on the issues relating to my amendment, which I will withdraw if the Minister can convince the Committee that I should do so. However, I hope that he will agree to the amendment, given the consensus in the professions and the Opposition, and especially in the Northern Ireland Assembly, that these matters should be devolved.

Column Number: 18

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I apologise for my slight lateness, but sitting in the meeting that delayed me gave me something to look forward to for the rest of the day.

The sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Reigate is consistent with what the various bodies that he described have called for. The issue of concern to me is not one of strategy. It is appropriate for us to explore the intention to support what, for the sake of simplicity, is being called the independence of not only the judiciary but all those involved in the administration of justice, including the legal profession. However, my concern is with the specific wording. The definition of ''independence'' could be different outside the Committee. The hon. Member for Reigate suggested a definition such as ''a profession whose practitioners see themselves as independent'', but the difficulty is that a lawyer could have a field day with any definition of ''independence''.

The Minister will no doubt return to the point, but the big question that the hon. Gentleman may be able to address in his summating speech is how self-regulation alone can be a sufficient tool for those responsible for the administration of justice in Northern Ireland to ensure that the legal profession is maintained independently. Self-regulation would probably work until there was a significant example of when it failed or the legal profession acted non-independently. History tells us that at such a moment huge pressure is put on a Government to shift from self to mandatory regulation. I am not a great fan of such a shift—generally in society we go too far towards mandatory regulation—and the amendment would enshrine that responsibility on the Government. We would be providing in law that the Government should seriously consider mandatory regulation of the legal profession if they were not confident that they could maintain its independence in any other way.

Therefore, my question to the hon. Gentleman is not about intent, but about definition. How could the definition of ''independence'' be codified so that it would not be up for legal challenge, and how does he respond to my concern that a Government might be under enormous pressure to create a mandatory regulatory structure in the event of a failure of the independence of the legal profession?

Mr. Garnier: I intervene just to persuade the Minister that his intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, although interesting to hear, revealed a non-point. It is a non-point particularly when it comes from the mouth of a representative of a Government who intervened on the legal profession with the Access to Justice Act 1999, even though he was not a Minister at the time. As a former full-time lawyer, I am sure that he is concerned about the independence of the legal profession and that, like me, he will have been dismayed about the passage of that legislation. Although called the Access to Justice Act, it stripped away access and was more of a denial to justice Act, and I trust that when we get back into Government, we will do something about it. It was a wholesale intervention on the independence of the legal profession.

Column Number: 19

At first blush, my hon. Friend's amendment appears to be outside the terms of the long title of the Bill, which is:

    ''A Bill to make provision about the judiciary in Northern Ireland''.

To that extent, it seems that it would be ultra vires the Bill to make provisions about the legal profession, but my hon. Friend has in fact lighted upon an extremely important point. Like me, he knows that we cannot have an independent judiciary unless it can rely on an independent legal profession. The judiciary in the United Kingdom is exclusively taken from the legal profession, and one reason why our court system works in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales is because of the mutual understanding and bond of trust between those who act as advocates and those who sit in judgment. That trust is brought about by working together because judges, having been either solicitors or barristers themselves, know the people who appear before them. That is increasingly difficult in the large legal profession of England and Wales, but in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, the legal profession is still relatively small and knows itself well. Any judge is likely to know or know of, with a good level of understanding, the character and merits of advocates appearing in front of him or her. The judge will rely on the good standing and independence of the advocate to assess whether the submissions and arguments he or she makes are honest and soundly based. The advocate may in due course become a judge. Those who appoint judges from the legal profession will know whether candidates are suited to become judges, by possessing not only the necessary intellectual capacity but also a character that allows them to perform the job with considerable independence.

I should declare an interest as the current Lord Chancellor kindly appointed me to the bench as a recorder in 2000. I am not making a party political point; I am making a point about the vital importance of maintaining not only an independent judiciary but also an independent legal profession on which the judiciary so much relies. I know from my own experience of sitting in the Crown courts just across from Parliament square in the Middlesex Guildhall that my job as a judge is made so much easier because I can trust that, by and large, the barristers and solicitor advocates who appear in front of me are straight, will not lie to the court and will not advance a dishonest submission based on made-up facts. They act in that way because it is their duty to do so, but also because it is inculcated into them from their student days and their pupillage—I have forgotten the modern term for doing articles. It is a sort of unspoken handing down of the culture from generation to generation that can be learnt only by experience, not by reading about it in books. If we do not understand the necessary relationship between the training of lawyers and the reliance that the judiciary places on them, we will make huge mistakes in the administration of justice, not only in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Column Number: 20

I applaud the amendment. It is hugely important as a matter of fact and as a matter of symbolism. I do not see in it the pitfalls that the Minister implied in his intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. The Law Society and the Bar Council of Northern Ireland can remain fiercely and proudly independent bodies that uphold the highest standards of the law and can continue to regulate themselves in matters of discipline. However, no profession is wholly independent of the law. Members of the legal profession in the United Kingdom are subject to the discipline of the criminal law. If they commit crimes outside or within their profession they will be prosecuted if the evidence exists to justify doing so. Equally, if a judge believes that an advocate appearing in front of him or her is committing a professional or a criminal offence, he or she will take steps to deal with that person, by reporting the matter to the leader of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland or to the president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland or, if necessary and the evidence warrants it, to the police or the relevant prosecuting authority.

There is no absolute independence in the sense implied by the Minister. No contradiction will affect the Bill by the addition of the words proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. Rather there will be an underlining of the symbiotic relationship between the judiciary and the legal profession, which makes our courts cleaner and more widely respected. That is essential for a part of the United Kingdom that has seen huge difficulties between the two communities.

11.45 am

I speak with diffidence because I have not lived in Northern Ireland since the 1950s, though I have listened to people such as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and other Northern Ireland MPs—and visited the Province subsequently. Where it is difficult to maintain law and order generally, the independence of the legal profession and of the judiciary should go hand in hand and be afforded statutory recognition.

I urge the Minister to view the amendment kindly. If he is dissatisfied with the drafting, he will doubtless say so and draw on the expertise of his officials, who might be able to improve it. I am not convinced, however, that the amendment can be improved. It makes sense, and coincides with the realities and the proper needs and expectations of the ordinary men and women of Northern Ireland, who rely on an independent legal profession to protect their civil rights. It also protects the judiciary, as we saw in debating the earlier amendment. The judiciary comes from the legal profession and its fierce independence relies on the quality of the legal profession before it.

I have unnecessarily extended these simple points with an over-wordy intervention, but I hope that the Minister will find some merit in these remarks in support of my hon. Friend.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 29 January 2002