Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger has expressed public concerns over the talent pool still motivated to enter the senior judiciary.
Neuberger, who retires in the autumn, said in a speech that the proportion of ‘refuseniks’ among possible candidates is increasing and the trend threatens to become a problem if it continues.
He warned that the drift could threaten the UK’s reputation for a first-class judiciary and in turn undermine the financial and professional services industries.
‘Senior judges have jobs with greater pressures and requiring a much greater mix of skills than previously,’ he said. ‘A judicial career still seems immensely rewarding to the great majority who do the job, but there is no doubt that the heavy workload of a judge coupled with the increasing gap between judicial pay and the rewards of successful private practice means that appointment to the High Court is significantly less attractive than it was.’
Neuberger cited the pressure of cases, reforms to litigation procedures and the reduction in legal aid as factors behind some wariness over applying for senior roles.
In a wide-ranging lecture at the Oxford Law Faculty, Neuberger also questioned the merits of disclosure of documents in court and cross-examination of witnesses, saying the value of both was ‘highly questionable’.
He said most cases would have been decided the same way with expensive disclosure and inspection of documents, as lawyers search largely fruitlessly for a ‘smoking gun’ to secure their case.
‘I question whether the odd case where full disclosure really has made all the difference justifies the pointless expenditure in the countless other cases where it makes no difference,’ he said.
‘As for cross-examination, most of the best points that emerge from questioning can be made much more shortly in argument. I am very sceptical about judges relying on their impression of a witness, or even how the witness deals with questions.’
He suggested some disputes might appear to be resolved by reference to who calls the best-performing witness, and there was an argument in some cases not to add the ‘complicating factor’ of oral testimony.
Meanwhile, the Judicial Appointments Commission has begun the process of recruiting a lord chief justice to replace Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who retires this year.