The High Court will face an ‘unsustainable’ shortage of judges in the coming years if nothing is done to address the current recruitment crisis.

That was the stark warning from lord chief justice Lord Burnett of Maldon last night, as he addressed lord chancellor David Gauke and other guests at a dinner in the City of London.

Burnett said it was well-known there had been difficulty in attracting applicants with the right skills to fill vacancies in recent years.

Lord Burnett

Lord Burnett

Currently there is a statutory complement of 108 High Court judges, and for the fourth year in a row the Judicial Appointments Commission had been unable to recommend enough people to fill the quota. The High Court now operates with 93 judges (around 86% of the number required) but this complement could drop to 80% next year – despite the recent competition to produce more candidates.

‘We needed many more [successful applicants] to make good the shortfall of recent years,’ said Burnett. ‘That shortfall followed and largely resulted from the steady erosion of judicial terms and conditions.

‘There is an urgent need to act now if we are to avoid serious and lasting damage to the High Court and to the international position of the jurisdiction of England and Wales, with knock-on consequences for the professional services industry and the City.’

Burnett said the ‘main levers’ were in the hands of government and professions, which both need to do more to bolster numbers.

In the speech, Burnett touched upon the forced retirement of Sir James Munby as president of the family division at the mandatory age of 70. This, Burnett pointedly noted, was dubbed ‘the age of statutory senility’.

Burnett added: ‘[Munby] must retire at a time when he remains brimming with energy, enthusiasm and intellectual vigour.’