Lord Chief Justice questioned by Constitution Committee

On 27 April the House of Lords Constitution Committee questioned the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, on four main points: the recruitment and retention of judges, diversity in the legal profession, public perception of the legal system, and the programme to modernise the court estate. This Committee session took place more or less six months after the Lord Chief’s annual press conference last November.

Lord Thomas advised the Committee that the judicial function was “having difficulties” appointing and keeping judges. He said that successful practitioners could earn significant sums at the Bar and would see a reduction in income if appointed to the Bench. This, coupled with working conditions, and very high level workloads, were “very substantial deterrents” to contemplating life as a judge. He added that the pension of a High Court judge was “materially less than a district judge”.

Lord Thomas praised Sir Paul Jenkins, the former Treasury Solicitor, for his sterling efforts in the field of diversity in the legal profession. Diversity was being tackled across the board, but still more needed to be done to ensure the correct blend.

The severe reduction in legal aid, which Lord Thomas said was a political decision because of its affordability, meant that the public perception of the legal system focused on the high costs of bringing an action. He suggested that the proposed on-line courts would likely go some way in restoring public faith that a system had been developed that was seen to be fair and far less expensive to use. He advised the Committee that good progress with IT was being made and what had been rolled out had worked. He could foresee jury trials relying far more heavily on the use of technology, although he admitted that in the civil courts the listing rooms were still covered in an ocean of paper. Lord Thomas said that a huge sum had been spent on hard-wiring the Royal Courts of Justice following the Woolf reforms, only for that to be replaced by the technological advance of Wi-Fi and it was therefore of paramount importance that money set aside for IT is spent wisely.

With regard to the court estate, he advised the Committee that a Justice report would be issued soon addressing the layout of the courtroom.  In his view, courtrooms need to be interchangeable but remain secure. Good progress was being made in major trial centres – consolidating buildings between County Courts, Crown Courts, Magistrate Courts and Tribunals – but less so in rural areas. These developments would mean that buildings could be sold and, with the agreement of HM Treasury, the proceeds of sale ploughed back into the court service. He mentioned that some court buildings were very valuable, but many were in a poor state of repair. Nevertheless, the sites of such buildings were still a valuable asset that should be sold off for a good price. He said that decisions to sell off part of the court estate must be based on sound commercial decisions from which HM Courts and Tribunal Services would benefit, and with not all benefits enjoyed by the developer.

Lord Thomas offered to return to the Constitution Committee and provide further updates. Given that the main themes of his recent evidence to the Committee are similar to those of his press conference last November, it will be interesting to see how his views have developed when he next addresses the legal press in November 2016.

About the Author

Jef Mitchell is a consultant at BLM and former Chief Claims Officer at the Ministry of Defence where he regularly briefed Ministers on claims issues and risk management. He now helps to lead the firm’s Policy and Government Affairs work with Alistair Kinley preparing submissions and supporting evidence for consultations and reform proposals, in addition to liaising with government departments and regulators on key issues and consultations affecting the firm and its clients. Jef is also an accredited mediator.

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