The influential Commons justice committee has sprung to the defence of the senior judges subjected to vitriolic attacks by pro-Brexit newspapers in the wake of last week's Article 50 judgment. Speaking for the committee, Conservative chairman Bob Neill MP warned this afternoon that the freedom of the press is 'not a licence to attack judges in a personal manner' or to seek to undermine judicial independence.
'It is quite wrong to vilify or attack judges or attempt to intimidate or undermine them,' the statement (below) adds.
The development follows another uncomfortable day for lord chancellor Liz Truss. Last night she was reportedly confronted at a private meeting by Conservative MPs unhappy about her handling of the affair.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve is among critics who believes her ‘weak’ statement on Saturday in support of the trio - dubbed ‘Enemies of the People’ by the Daily Mail - was too little, too late.
The MPs, some of them senior lawyers, are understood to have told the lord chancellor there is ‘huge concern’ among colleagues about her response to the attacks on lord chief justice Lord Thomas, master of the rolls Sir Terence Etherton and Lord Justice Sales.
One Conservative source quoted in the Guardian says today: ‘Her job is to defend the judiciary from attack, and while she is not required to attack the Daily Mail she should have disassociated the government from their attacks.’
The MPs are reported to have been unimpressed when Truss said the job of defending the judiciary falls to the LCJ – given that lord Thomas was one of those attacked.
In a further development, 17 QCs from 1 Crown Office Row have written to Truss bemoaning her ‘inadequate’ defence of the judges. They include two former bar chairs, Guy Mansfield and Robert Seabrook.
The silks said her statement ‘failed to spell out in clear terms that the judges in question had simply been ruling on the dispute, had not been motivated by bias and to accuse them of trying to thwart the will of the people was dangerously to misrepresent what they had done’.
The lord chancellor's predecessor has also weighed in to the row by paying tribute to the article 50 trio. Michael Gove tweeted: ‘The High Court judges who’ve ruled on article 50 are brilliant, thoughtful, wise and decent men - their judgment deserves respect.’ He added: ‘Good people can differ on their reasoning and conclusion - but I find much of it persuasive…however, even if I didn’t agree with elements of their reasoning I’d personally treat the judgement of three brilliant men with respect.’
But Gove added: ‘BUT the freedom of the press is also important - some of us may object to judgements - others to headlines - but let’s remember Voltaire. A raucous, vigorous, press is just as much a guarantor of freedom as our independent judiciary - we are the land of Wilkes and Edward Coke.’