No matter your opinions on having an antirely unelected former flatmate of the Prime minister as the head of the judiciary, the fact that the Lord Chancellor Charlie “the Lord” Falconer has today given up one of his office’s most central roles is a tad worrying. As that BBC report notes,
“The title will continue but the post may in the future be filled by an MP who is not a lawyer. Presently, it has to be taken by the most senior lawyer in the House of Lords.”
So we go from a situation in which the final say on legal matters is (supposedly, at least) taken by the person with the most experience and qualification so to do to one where any Tom, Dick or Harriet who happens to have sucked up to the head honchos of the governing party can set new legal precedents with little or no knowledge of how the system is supposed to work.
So now we get Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, taking over as head of the judiciary, effecitvely ending one of the few English traditions which can genuinely be claimed to have lasted for a thousand years. The Lord Phillips seems well qualified (certainly more so than did Charlie “drinking buddy” Falconer at any rate). But it’s quite hard to tell what he stands for, having apparently never voted on any issue since being elevated to the Lords in 1998. He has, however, criticised the government over their handling of the BSE crisis, so there is at least some hope of a certain degree of independence.
But this is beside the point. When these plans were first announced there was a good deal of controversy, and rightly so. For such a serious alteration of the way the constitution works, you’d have thought they’d have a bit more discussion, and try to come up with a genuine solution rather than mere window-dressing. (Well, you would were you not used to the way this government conducts all of its constitutional affairs, at any rate).
Yes, we need an independent head of the judiciary, and this new set-up could be considered an improvement on what’s gone before. But why are they introducing it before setting up an independent supreme court? The Constitutional Reform Act 2005, from which these changes stem, also states that the long argued-for supreme court will finally be set up. But the building to which the Law Lords are supposed to move will not be ready until 2008, and the new court has yet to be convened.
An independent head of the judiciary while both the head and the judiciary itself are still a part of the legislature smacks of the half-arsed 1999 reform of the House of Lords, getting rid of one problematic system but having nothing well thought out to replace it, and leaving us with a mish-mash arguably little better than the thing it is replacing. The only benefit is that instead of having a head of our legal system who has gained his position purely by dint of being mates with the Prime Minister, we have someone who should at least know what they are doing. Constitutionally, however, we are no better off, as the Law Lords remain installed in the Upper House.
Changing a part of the system a good two years before the rest is ready strikes me as a tad silly – like putting on your tie before your shirt. But if there’s one thing you can’t accuse this government of, it’s paying due care and attention to constitutional reform… Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, anyone?