Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


20 MARCH 2007

  Q20  Dr Whitehead: When the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill was published the Explanatory Note to the Bill stated that a number of the changes to eligibility that were being undertaken were being done with the aim of increasing the diversity of the judiciary. Were you consulted about those changes before the Bill was published?

  Baroness Prashar: As you know, we generally support the principles of the Bill, but we would like a little bit more clarity on the practical application of it because, although the broadening of the eligibility criteria is, of course, welcome, I think is introducing a subjective element into that and we would like better clarity. At the moment the question of eligibility is a matter for the Lord Chancellor but the Bill will give us flexibility, so we do not want to be in a position to have to apply subjective criteria to assessing eligibility, but broadly, yes, we welcome the Bill.

  Q21  Dr Whitehead: So were you consulted before the Bill was published?

  Baroness Prashar: We have had discussions, and I actually wrote to Baroness Ashton, who was dealing with the Bill, particularly on the question of eligibility, that we welcomed it but we were concerned about the practical application of it.

  Q22  Dr Whitehead: And was that on your initiative or on the Government's initiative?

  Baroness Prashar: It was our initiative. Writing to Baroness Ashton was our initiative.

  Q23  Dr Whitehead: So, with respect, you were not consulted?

  Baroness Prashar: We had discussions.

  Q24  Dr Whitehead: Did those discussions arise once, as it were, you observed that the Bill had been published and you said, "I think there are some things we need to say on this as the JAC"?

  Baroness Prashar: Yes.

  Q25  Dr Whitehead: But there was not an approach to you from the DCA, for example, saying, "We are thinking of putting these new eligibility criteria forward in the Bill. What is your view of how they may impact upon what you are doing"?

  Baroness Prashar: If you are asking at what stage we were consulted, not at the outset, but, as I said, we have had discussions with the DCA on the eligibility criteria.

  Q26  Dr Whitehead: You have mentioned some of the ways in which this might impact, but overall how do you think they will impact on the work of the Commission? Do you think that they will have some of the positive effects—for example, on benchmarking that you have talked about?

  Baroness Prashar: Let us take an example. The ILEX people are eligible, but of course from our point of view it is important that we assess them on merit. It widens the pool, but the assessment will be on merit.

  Q27  Dr Whitehead: One of the proposals was to decrease the number of years' experience required to be eligible for some judicial appointments and, as you say, that may expand the pool of experienced candidates, but it is at least technically possible that that would allow appointment to a bench, for example, under the age of 30. Do you think that reduction in the number of years' experience will have any effect on the quality of people appointed so that the eligible pool will be diluted on quality grounds?

  Baroness Prashar: For us age is not the criterion. What we are concerned about is that, whatever your age or background, if you meet the criteria against which we are assessing candidates you will be appointed.

  Q28  Dr Whitehead: You said age was not a criterion but is there nevertheless a suggestion that that might be a move towards a career judiciary, that if people are eligible under changes in arrangements to be appointed at a very young age that might suggest that such a move might be happening, at least on an informal basis?

  Baroness Prashar: I do not see this particular reduction in age as a move to a career judiciary. As a Commission we have not taken a view about what we think about a career judiciary because we have been very much concerned about making sure that the current system works effectively.

  Q29  Dr Whitehead: Do you think the criticism that the changes proposed in the Bill, and indeed some of the questions about experience, for example, will just have an impact on the junior judiciary and that the issues on diversity in the higher reaches of the judiciary, as we have heard, will be just as they always were?

  Baroness Prashar: I think it will have an impact as far as tribunals, the District Bench or the Circuit Bench are concerned. It is fair to say that it may take a little longer in terms of the High Court, but for our part we are doing whatever we can to make sure that people who have suitable qualities apply. For example, we have been very active in ensuring that solicitors, academics and others are made aware of it and, as you know, previously there was a view that to be a good judge you had to be an advocate. Advocates do not necessarily make good judges, and if you look at our current qualities and abilities that we have developed, they are about assessing ability to do the job and are not so much about the ability to be a good advocate, so we are hoping that the combination of our current abilities and qualities that we have determined, plus some of the things we are doing in terms of encouraging people from academic backgrounds and solicitors to apply, will begin to make the change as far as women and minorities are concerned. I think it would be fair to say—and this is my personal assessment—that that probably will take a little longer. On the other hand, if we do widen the pool of judicial experience among tribunals and district benches then I am hoping people will gain enough experience through that route. Some of them need to come through that route to the High Court as well.

  Q30  Chairman: If I may just ask Sir John's view on one related matter, that is the idea that it might be helpful in attracting more women to become judges if it were possible to return to practice after a period of service on the bench. The Lord Chancellor has indicated that he thinks this might be helpful. I wonder what you think about it.

  Mr Justice Goldring: It is not an area which we as a Commission are getting involved in. I do not think it is for me to express a view about that. That is very much a matter for the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor, each of whom, of course, has expressed a view. I am sorry if I am being slightly evasive, but I am going to be.

  Q31  Chairman: So really, in the Lord Chief Justice's view, it would be for the Lord Chief Justice to decide if it were appropriate to remove the traditional limitation that you do not return to practice after you have served on the Bench?

  Mr Justice Goldring: Yes.

  Q32  Chairman: In the Lord Chancellor's view it appears to be a kind of joint decision, but the Lord Chief Justice and his predecessor think that under the new arrangements it is a matter for them.

  Mr Justice Goldring: That is my understanding.

  Q33  Chairman: And the Commission would have to just deal with the consequences and act in accordance with whatever decision was arrived at?

  Mr Justice Goldring: Yes, I think so.

  Baroness Prashar: That is absolutely true.

  Q34  Mr Tyrie: Do you not think it is something that you might want to have a think about and see if you should have a view? I can understand that you are a relatively new group and it is a relatively new issue, but you might want time to think about it because it is actually going to have quite a considerable impact on your work, is it not?

  Baroness Prashar: For us it is premature to get into issues which are policy matters for the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. We at the moment are concerned with our primary duty to appoint on merit and widen the pool. Obviously, over a period of time, maybe two or three years, once we have got some experience under our belt and we have broader comments to make we will do so, but I think it is early days for us to start getting into the fray on broader issues because at the moment our priority is to get our core job right and make the JAC effective in what it is doing.

  Q35  Mr Tyrie: At the very least might it not be a good idea to have a view on what impact it will have on the way you operate should that proposal go ahead?

  Baroness Prashar: The only impact it would have would be on how we assess. As far as we are concerned, if people do return and they want to become judges it is a question of assessing whether they are able to be a good judge if that is the policy.

  Keith Vaz: Can I just echo the points made by Mr Tyrie? I think this Committee would like to know about your thoughts on these issues. I realise that everyone is new and they are finding their lockers but the fact is that the Judicial Appointments Commission ought to have a view. We accept that this is something you are going to look at but I think we would like to know sooner rather than later.

  Q36  Chairman: Let me put it this way. Is this such an important and valuable change from the point of view of reaching your objectives that it should be given very serious consideration even if there are other reasons beyond your remit to question its desirability?

  Baroness Prashar: Indeed. I hear what you are saying and I do think that we have to take it step by step.

  Q37  Keith Vaz: Ms Pelham, how long have you been in your post?

  Clare Pelham: As Chief Executive of JAC I was appointed at the end of February.[1]

  Q38 Keith Vaz: Just clarifying some figures you gave to the Chairman, you have 65 members of staff seconded from the DCA?

  Clare Pelham: We will have on 1 April.

  Q39  Keith Vaz: And how many other members of staff do you have?

  Clare Pelham: We will have a total number of staff of 87. The remainder comprise some agency staff which was a consequence of the uncertainty of a relocation and we needed to take on some short-term staff as well as some staff seconded from other departments.

1   Note by witness: I was appointed Chief Executive at the end of February 2006. Back

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