Skip to main content

Judiciary: Independence

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Lord Chancellor fulfils her duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary.

My Lords, the Lord Chancellor has fulfilled her duty and will continue to do so. Statements from the Lord Chancellor and wider government show that she considers the independence of the judiciary to be a foundation of the rule of law. She has emphasised that our judiciary is, rightly, respected the world over for its independence and impartiality.

Have the Government taken full account of the wide public disquiet that arose because the lurid and irresponsible attacks on some of our High Court judges were not answered immediately and emphatically? Have the Government taken note of a report issued by the Constitution Committee two years ago, which recommended:

“Given the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law, the Lord Chancellor should have a high rank in Cabinet and sufficient authority … amongst his or her ministerial colleagues to carry out this duty effectively and impartially”?

My Lords, it is not the job of government or the Lord Chancellor to police the press headlines. Having considered the headlines and, more importantly, public reaction to them, the Lord Chancellor made a clear and timely statement that an independent judiciary was the cornerstone of the rule of law and that she would defend that independence to the hilt.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on his forthright criticism of media and other attacks on the judiciary. Will he convey to the Prime Minister the disappointment of many across this House at the Lord Chancellor’s failure to be anywhere nearly as explicit in condemning those attacks, and will he offer her a short course on the proper discharge of her responsibilities in relation to this and other matters?

The Lord Chancellor is well aware of her rights and obligations in respect of this matter. Many people were shocked by some of the headlines that we saw last week. I have yet to speak to anyone who actually believed them.

My Lords, the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, refers to the duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary, but the Lord Chancellor also has a duty, under the Constitutional Reform Act, to have regard to the need to defend that independence. I am afraid that many believe that she singularly failed in both those duties following the decision of the High Court on 3 November. Will the noble and learned Lord convey to the Lord Chancellor how seriously this House takes both those duties and ensure that she is fully briefed on what is required of her should the Supreme Court come under an attack similar to that levelled at the judges of the High Court after the decision earlier this month?

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recall that in the report referred to by my noble friend Lord Lexden the Constitution Committee recognised that every member of the Government has a duty to uphold the law but that the Lord Chancellor has a special position, in that he or she has a duty to ensure that the Government as a whole uphold respect for the law, and that included in that is the independence of the judiciary? Would my noble and learned friend be willing to revisit the committee’s recommendation that the oath of the Lord Chancellor, as enshrined in the 2005 Act, should be revisited and strengthened?

It is not considered necessary that the oath should be revisited. The oath of the Lord Chancellor is to respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge her duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts. That is the duty that she has addressed and discharged.

My Lords, we all value the freedom of press comment, but when judges are attacked in inflammatory terms and cannot answer back there is machinery in the Constitutional Reform Act for the judiciary to be defended without delay. Here, there was intolerable delay before the Minister spoke. Will the noble and learned Lord invite her to read Sections 3(1) and 3(6) of the Constitutional Reform Act, which spell out her duty in clear and unambiguous terms?

The Lord Chancellor is well aware of her obligations in terms of Section 3 of the Act and has addressed those obligations. It was not appropriate that she should give a knee-jerk reaction to sensationalist headlines. What she did was to consider a series of press reports and the public reaction to those, and then respond in a coherent and timely manner.

My Lords, I think the whole House would want to echo the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. However, the issue here is timeliness. The noble and learned Lord has told the House that he believes that the Lord Chancellor’s response was timely. Would he like to reconsider that view?

I see no reason to reconsider that view. It is important to remember that neither the Lord Chancellor nor any other member of the Government is here to police a free press. It is necessary for the Lord Chancellor to have regard to not only what the press have reported but the public reaction to that, and then take a considered position on that matter. I reiterate a point I made earlier: I have met many people who were shocked by some of these headlines; I have met no one who believed them.