The Master of the Rolls has called for an “institutional response” to unfair criticism of judges by politicians and the media.
Lord Dyson said there were “a number of hazards” in judges responding personally to attacks either by issuing press releases or “far more riskily” holding a media interview.
He said unfair criticism was liable, in rare cases, to produce “intemperate responses” from judges and had the potential to “imperil the professionalism of the judicial office as a whole”.
Delivering the annual BAILII lecture, Lord Dyson said the convention against criticism of judges’ decisions by politicians “has been eroded, even if it remains in place, albeit sometimes precariously, for government ministers”.
He went on: “Uncertain and testing conditions therefore lie ahead. In my opinion, it is time for judges (if they have not already done so) to accept these changes that have been brought about by shifts in our culture, our constitution, and our technology.
“In my view it is right that judges’ reasoned decisions should be open to public debate and scrutiny. Our courts are open and free, and the media perform a valuable job in our democracy of reporting the courts and the justice system to the wider public.
“What I hope is that the debate should be reasoned and based on the evidence. And what is not fair or reasonable is to impugn the motives of judges, or ascribe them to prejudices.
“Judges must expect criticism and, where appropriate, they must offer a robust response. This response should take the form of a well-organised, measured, institutional reply.”
Lord Dyson praised the “excellent work” of the judicial press office in distributing faster and greater quantities of accurate information, such as transcripts of judgments, “ahead of the next news cycle”.
He said the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, was “also well-placed to offer an institutional response to criticism”, while noting that the LCJ had recently regretted that his ability to do this was compromised lack of a seat in the House of Lords.
Lord Dyson added: “I hope that, if the noise of criticism from ministers and the press becomes louder, the judicial press office and the Lord Chief Justice will continue to serve as important correctives to unfair comment and misinformation about judges.”