Like to be a High Court judge? Forget the whisper over a drink at your Inn or the traditional “tap on the shoulder”. Dust off the CV and send in an application. And then prepare yourself for an “interview” with a selection panel. This is the new world of appointing judges — and today it hits one of the most senior tiers of the judiciary — the High Court Bench.
An advertisement in The Times will invite applicants for appointment to the High Court (salary £162,000 a year) to fill an anticipated ten vacancies expected between April next year and March 2008, with another 15 to be kept on the “reserve” list. The aim is to provide a potential 14 candidates for the Queen’s Bench Division, seven for the Chancery Division and four for the Family Division.
The selection process will be the first undertaken by the Judicial Appointments Commission, the independent body set up under the Constitutional Reform Áct in 2005 to take over responsibility for selecting judges from the Lord Chancellor’s officials.
There has been advertising for High Court judges once before — but they were selected on paper. This time, the candidates will undergo a face-to-face discussion — and that, with references and their own application form, will combine to inform the selection.
The commission has now been in business for six months. But today it goes fully “live” with its own procedures, rather than drawing on candidates already on the reserve list selected under the old system headed by the Lord Chancellor.
Baroness Usha Prashar, who is chairman of the 15 lay and judicial commissioners and 105 staff, will now be responsible for 500 to 700 judicial appointments a year, including the High Court. More senior judges are appointed under a different procedure. In due course her team will also take on the appointment of hundreds of magistrates a year.
The aim, she says, is for a much more transparent process that will encourage a greater diversity of candidates. “Up to now, the process was perceived to be very secretive and not very open. There was a view that it was those you knew who counted — and that probably deterred a lot of people who felt they would not get a fair deal. This will be objective and transparent and hopefully that will encourage more people to apply.”
Its independence is another plus point. The Act setting up the commission enshrines the independence of the judges for the first time in 900 years; and the new Commission is part of that. “It was felt that an independent body could enhance the confidence both of judges and the public in the appointments process,” she says.
There may be nervousness about how the commission will go about its task. But Prashar emphasises that merit remains the touchstone and that it can be squared with improving diversity. Prashar insists that there will be no targets or positive discrimination. “I don’t like the notion of targets. And there is no question of quotas. Merit is our bedrock — we will appoint solely on merit. But we will try to ensure that merit is drawn from as wide a field as possible.”
In five to ten years, she predicts, the face of the judiciary should start to look different. But it is not all down to the commission: the profession itself, the senior judiciary and the Lord Chancellor all have a part to play in encouraging people to apply for the Bench.