Lord Judge, as we all know, has a wonderfully apt name. Not as good as the anaesthetist from Essex called Doctor De’ath but certainly enough to raise a smile. However that’s not the main reason why I’ll miss the Lord Chief Justice when he hangs up the gown and retires in September.
He’s a charming chap, always with a friendly word even for lowly reporters like myself, and exudes calm and compassion. And he’s certainly not beyond criticism of the government when he sees the need.
Of course, the eminent Lord is hardly likely to storm the barricades, but in his own subtle way he makes sure his point is made. Take Wednesday’s appearance before the House of Lords constitution committee. In the space of an hour the Lords managed to fit in discussions on everything from judicial pensions to legal aid, with a swipe at judicial diversity thrown in for good measure (no one present seemed to appreciate the irony of a committee of six men and one woman telling the legal profession it had a problem with diversity, but hey ho).
Of course the lord chief justice must, like the Queen, be above party politics and avoid partisanship at all costs. But his disagreement with current government policies was still overwhelmingly clear. Take legal aid for a start. Lord Judge accepted that judges in county courts will have to slash their case list by almost half once the cuts kick in from April. ‘I share concern about litigants in person,’ conceded Judge. ‘It’s absolutely inevitable we will have more.’
When pressed on whether this would increase the cost to the taxpayer, undermining the government’s whole case for the cuts in the first place, he smiled and replied: ‘I am not disagreeing with you on that.’ Judge was as critical as he could be on justice secretary Chris Grayling’s barmy suggestion that cheaper barristers be hired for murder trials. ‘The point about QCs is that the man or woman who takes silk has established they are the quality to be at the front of the profession.’
On filming of sentencing? Look at New Zealand, it just meant boos and cheers during the judge’s remarks. On restriction to judicial reviews? JRs are an inconvenience only to those who have not done their job lawfully. On judicial pensions? Take the gold plates off and you’re history, Grayling. (He didn’t really say that, but I’m sure it’s what he was thinking.)
Of course, Judge’s appearance was never going to be about chest-thumping protest. But in his own way, he made clear the level of dissatisfaction amongst senior members of the judiciary at the way the government appears to treat the legal profession like a game of Jenga, pulling out key components until the whole thing topples over.
Which raises the question why the government doesn’t ask – or at least doesn’t listen – to warnings from such figures. Judges might not have the right to directly influence government policy, but I’m more interested in their views than those of a Whitehall suit.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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