Older recorders reluctant to leave the comfort of their part-time posts are making it difficult to hire younger people to the judiciary, the lord chief justice has told peers, who have been continuing to hear the full extent of the judicial recruitment crisis.

Giving evidence to the House of Lords constitution committee yesterday, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said the profile of recorders was ‘completely unbalanced’.

At present, 38% of recorders are over the age of 60, 37% are between the ages of 50 and 59, 19% are aged between 40 to 49, 2% are aged between 30 and 39, and 5% are over 70.

Thomas said it was difficult to increase numbers, partly because everyone ‘across the board’ must have the opportunity to sit.

The Judicial Appointments Commission is currently recruiting 100 recorders. The competition, which has been blighted by technical glitches, has attracted more than 2,000 applicants.

The lord chief justice said: ‘One of the great disappointments we face is we’re not returning to what we used to have – the expectation you would have a recorder for a relatively finite period. We only have 100 places because of the age profile.

‘If you know at the age of 60 that you can still have your recordership, then that’s a nice comfort, to know that when your advocacy or litigating skills aren’t quite what they once were, there’s this nice little part-time job you can go on with,’ he added.

The district bench is facing similar issues, with 35% of deputy district judges aged over 60, and 34% aged between 50 and 59.

Thomas said the situation was not as bad as it is with recorders, ‘but you get deputy district judges who might live in Spain, come here for three weeks, earn a little money then go back again. But it’s no good for recruitment’.

Asked about the retirement age for judges precluding some senior members of the judiciary being considered for certain posts such as the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas said there was no reason a judge cannot be appointed for a short period of time, adding that he was attracted to the idea of fixed terms rather than age limits.

Thomas’ evidence session follows similar hearings with Judicial Appointments Commission chair Lord Kakkar and vice-chair Lord Justice Burnett, Law Society president Robert Bourns and other practitioners.

Highlighting the impact of current working conditions on morale, Thomas told the committee that the courts estate has ‘buckets everywhere’, noting that the ‘plaster has been falling off the wall for years’ in Leeds, and there are roof leaks and heating issues in Winchester. 

‘There is nothing more demoralising than going to a building which is dilapidated,’ he added.

Commenting on the government’s forthcoming review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, Thomas said the sentencing parts of the act had been mostly successful and that the review should concentrate on legal aid.

He added: ‘On the legal aid side, there are problems that need review, particularly the provision of legal aid or some form of legal assistance in private law cases, in family disputes. 

‘Experience is beginning to show in some sorts of cases that you need that. Whether you do it in the traditional model or Californian model is something you ought to look in to.’

All California superior courts have some legal help available to people who do not have lawyers and are representing themselves.