There is an “urgent need to act now” to make the High Court bench an attractive destination for lawyers as it struggles with fewer judges than it should have, the Lord Chief Justice said yesterday.
Lord Burnett said there were not enough high-quality candidates coming through to maintain the statutory complement of 108 High Court judges – there are currently 93.
Speaking at the annual judges’ dinner at Mansion House in London, Lord Burnett said the benefits of a strong justice system depended upon having in place “the skilled judges needed at every level to dispose of the business of the courts”.
“For the fourth year in a row the Judicial Appointments Commission, despite its best and impressive endeavours, has been unable to recommend for appointment the number of judges needed to maintain the statutory complement…
“The recent High Court competition, the product of which will take up appointment from the autumn, is expected to yield a small number of candidates of the highest quality – and I might add a socially diverse group with as many women as men, and including solicitors and serving judges as well as practising barristers.
“But we needed many more to make good the shortfall of recent years.”
Lord Burnett said the shortfall “followed and largely resulted from the steady erosion of judicial terms and conditions”. As a result, the High Court faced the “real prospect” next year of having to operate with about 80% of the statutory complement.
Speaking to an audience that included Lord Chancellor David Gauke, he continued: “That is unsustainable. 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.
“We – the judiciary – will continue to play our part to encourage applications for judicial appointment at every level from suitably qualified practitioners from all parts of the legal profession, and to ensure that the work remains as stimulating and rewarding as ever.
“But the main levers are not in our hands. I very much appreciate the Lord Chancellor’s commitment to help ensure we can recruit the right number and quality of judges, in which the government’s response to the [Senior Salaries Review Body] report later this year will play a vital part.
“The professions must play their part too, and encourage more of their brightest and best to apply for the bench, in the interests not only of the legal system in which they thrive, but of wider public service.”