PEOPLE with as few as four GCSEs could become judges under reforms designed to open the judiciary to a wider section of society. The reforms, outlined by the Lord Chancellor yesterday, would create a career path “from the filing cabinet to the Bench”.
Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, immediately expressed concern that any move to enhance judicial diversity should not threaten its quality. While he supported “increasing the pool of applicants from which the judiciary is drawn”, he said: “We must ensure that no action is taken that would undermine the high quality of the judiciary and the need for appointments to be made on the ground of merit alone.”
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, announced that the Government would legislate “as soon as parliamentary time allows” to open up the Bench beyond solicitors and barristers to let 4,000 legal executives and 1,500 registered patent agents and trademark attorneys apply for judicial office. This will include district bench and tribunal posts, as well as specialist intellectual property appointments in the Patents Court.
After consultation, the Lord Chancellor will also be given the power to amend “the qualifications needed for particular judicial offices in order to widen eligibility”. Lord Falconer said the present criteria were too restrictive and not precise enough.
In an unprecedented move last night, several hundred barristers meeting at the Old Bailey voted overwhelming to go on strike in protest at the Lord Chancellor’s refusal to increase their legal aid rates of pay in criminal trials. Meanwhile, at the annual judges’ dinner in London, Lord Woolf told the Lord Chancellor that he must stand up to the Treasury over the “chronic and massive overspending in the legal aid budget”. He said that the minister must “reduce the Treasury dragon to submission” if the “present parlous state” of the courts was to be remedied.