Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: That was a powerful argument against any retirement age being prescribed at all, as it would be interpreted by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight as discrimination against older people. For many people, reaching retirement age provides an opportunity to move into another phase of their lives, and is a relief from the pressure of spending most of their lives in a working environment. However, let us concentrate on the issue before us.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight seems to be ignorant as regards judges' retirement ages, whereas the hon. Member for Reigate was at least prepared to say that he was not clear on the matter. Over the past 20 years or thereabouts, judicial appointments that were traditionally made for life—or, more properly, ad vitam aut culpam—have been made subject to retirement ages. When I first began to practise law, there were judges who were well into their 80s, some of whom had to be physically carried on to the bench. I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate that, intellectually, they were very sharp, but for very good reasons a view was taken that judges should have relevant experience of life when dealing with the issues that come before them.

Repeated criticisms were made of decisions made by judges, on the grounds that they were old buffers or codgers or knew nothing about life. Jokes and stories were told about people appearing before judges who did not even understand the up-to-date vocabulary. Everyone knows the story of the judge who had to ask who the Beatles were in the 1960s.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Browne: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who comes from the same city as the Beatles.

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Mr. Kilfoyle: Being grey-haired and 55 years of age, I am increasingly divorced from the perceptions and experience of my children and of many of the younger generation. I am fascinated to hear my hon. Friend speak about an arbitrary age limit of 70. It is a legitimate point. Surely we are talking about fitness for office, not about applying an arbitrary age limit.

Mr. Browne: The answer to my hon. Friend is that it is not an arbitrary limit. I cannot speak for him, but I suspect that he has been a politician long enough to have been party to criticisms of decisions made by judges who were perceived to be out of contact with ordinary people. [Interruption.] He nods his head; perhaps he remembers doing so.

I suspect that there are only a few hon. Members with that length of experience who have not expressed the view that a decision handed down by a judge was perceived by their constituents to have been out of contact with the times. It is a legitimate criticism, but once such perceptions creep in about judges at that level in the judicial process, it damages the process of law because people start to concentrate on the age and description of judges and whether they are equipped to understand the issues that come before them. As I said before, jokes abound in the legal profession about judges having to ask about ordinary, everyday things, not knowing what was happening on the soaps and so on. Some of those things are more important than others, but they all damage the administration of justice.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): Is it their age that leads my hon. Friend to believe that judges have no contact with the outside world, or is it simply the narrow focus of their outside interests? At the age of 75 or 80, they could have an active life and a wide range of outside interests that would enable them to carry out that function.

The Chairman: Order. I should point out that I shall be 65 in June.

Mr. Browne: I am over the limit myself, Mr. Pike.

I do not criticise judges for their age. I am saying that the administration of justice was being criticised regularly with such observations. It is a matter of history. Anyone who has lived through the past 30 or 40 years will know that it happened. As a result, successive Governments and the judges accepted that it would be helpful to the college of justice represented by the judges if it could be regularly refreshed by younger people. Instead of staying on and handing down the same sort of justice against the same standards for 40 or 50 years, many judges agreed that they should accept a retirement age that would allow younger people to be appointed. To my certain knowledge, as the age of judges became lower—that coincided in all parts of the United Kingdom with an increase in the number of judges in order to increase the courts' capacity—the criticisms reduced significantly and the ordinary person's confidence in the justice system improved.

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The retirement age that was imposed on judges did not start at the present age of 70. Some judges are still in place who have statutory contracts that allow them to retire later, and transitional provisions are in place for that. However, there is a general acceptance that judges should retire at the age of 70. I recollect that the benefits of retirement were disputed by some judges when it was first imposed, but it is generally accepted in the legal profession and in the courts, and it seems to have improved people's confidence in judges' decisions.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am conscious that if a retirement age of 70 is accepted by the legal profession, it would meet the approval of those outside, especially as it would create more job opportunities for impecunious lawyers.

My original point was that the issue depends on performance. Of course we have all made comments about judges who seem to be out of touch with the real world, but this is a changing world and the legal profession is one of the slowest to react to that. We have an increasingly ageing population, and one could argue that judges are far more in touch with an increasing majority of the population. The Minister's argument seems specious. The selection of 70 as the retirement age instead of 75 is arbitrary, unless it were to be redefined in terms of the incompetence or otherwise of the incumbent.

5.30 pm

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend and I will have to agree to disagree on the matter. I thought that I had spoken to him in a reasonable fashion. There has been a progressive understanding, in response to the public's view, as expressed repeatedly by people such as himself—I might do some research into that. Measures have been taken in response to criticism, principally expressed by politicians, relating to the perception of judges' behaviour with reference to their age and their failure to understand and connect with ordinary people. There has been, progressively—

Mr. Blunt rose—

Mr. Browne: I shall not give way any more, because this issue has taken up more time than it needs. There are very important issues to discuss, and concerns have already been expressed about our not having time to debate them. We are getting bogged down unnecessarily in discussion of a relatively unimportant issue.

The description by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) of the measure as somehow being about jobs for the boys and impecunious lawyers is a distortion of a position that has been arrived at by a steady progression. The phrases he used are cheap. The legal profession and judges in particular responded to demands that were being placed on them, and were driven by politicians to accept retirement ages. It has worked—the general perception of the quality of justice emanating from a

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generally younger group of judges has improved. The judiciary is less criticised on that front in the press and other media.

All we have done is to adopt the age already set elsewhere. The qualification necessary to become Attorney-General is to have been a member of either of the legal professions for 10 years, as it is to become a judge. The role is equivalent to that of a judge and should have the same terms and conditions insofar as is appropriate. That is the position; as the hon. Member for Reigate said, it is a matter for judgment. Our judgment is that the retirement age for judges is the appropriate age limit in this case. That is not driven by a prejudice against older people, or any of the other motives that have been attached to it, which are not true and have no relevance to our thinking. That is the practice that has developed in response to the view of the populace.

Mr. McWalter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I am not giving way any more. In my view, it is appropriate that we should use those qualifications and that age.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am saddened by the Minister's attitude, and I mean that sincerely. I am not too happy with the way in which he has responded to what I considered to be a serious point. He may think that it is a minor matter that a post of such significance should be denied, on what I consider to be arbitrary grounds, but I do not.

I do not care what the Minister chooses to imply about comments that I may have made about judges. I hope that I will not stand corrected when he checks the record. I do not remember making a comment in public life about a judge's age per se being a barrier to that judge being able to hand down a decision. I might have questioned whether a certain decision was right—on the basis not of age but of the evidence that the judge had before him or her. I take a simple view that it is important that the Government be consistent in such matters, in terms not just of law or the legal profession but of the message that they send out to older people. I stand by my comments about older people and an ageing population. That should be recognised in the Bill as in all things.

The fact that the appointment will be for five years can be used judiciously by those who make the appointment. It seems bizarre that the cut-off age should be so arbitrary, especially given that one might expect that, in such a post and up to a certain point, with advancing years may come increasing sagacity. Of course we want to ensure that judges are in touch with the upcoming generation. One could legitimately make the same argument about the age of MPs, yet we hear no such argument being advanced in the House.

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