Commercial barristers “of the highest quality” who refuse to become judges will “destroy the very infrastructure that has allowed them to prosper”, the chancellor of the High Court has warned.
Sir Geoffrey Vos said the salary gap between judges and leading commercial lawyers was caused by an “exponential rise” in lawyers’ pay over the last 10 years, while judicial salaries had been frozen.
However, judges remained “even now, amongst the most well-paid public servants”.
In a speech to the Chancery Bar Association annual conference, Sir Geoffrey said: “My message is that the highest-quality barristers practising in the Business and Property Courts need to step up to the plate.
“They need to understand that, if they do not do so, they will be destroying the very infrastructure that has allowed them to prosper, and they will be doing so, I regret to have to say, for not very good reasons.
“You can ask any of my colleagues in the Rolls Building. I have. They all love the job. They may have this or that complaint. Everybody does. But unashamedly I would repeat, being a judge in our business and property courts across England and Wales is one of the best jobs you can find.”
Sir Geoffrey said that if the profession stopped producing the “brightest and best” for appointment to the bench, “the reputation of our jurisdiction for superlative quality in decision-making will quickly fade” and “it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy”.
The speech looked at the four “excuses” given by leading barristers and solicitors for not seeking judicial appointment, focusing in particular on the suggestion that being a judge “is not a good job anymore”.
Sir Geoffrey referred to judicial attitudes surveys, which appeared to show that “judges are not happy, and they are not fully appreciated by the government and the media or anyone else for that matter”.
He went on: “The suggestion is being made amongst barristers, senior and junior alike, and in the legal profession more widely, that being a judge is not a good job any more; that it is not enjoyable and that judges are miserable.
“So far as the Business and Property Courts are concerned, and I think elsewhere too, this is simply not true. Most, if not all judges, hugely enjoy the job they do. To put it bluntly, they love the judging and it is perceived as a privilege to do it.
He said that “despite the recent excellent appointments”, the Chancery Division was still three judges short (or 17%).
On pay and pensions, which he accepted had deteriorated over the last 10 years, Sir Geoffrey said there was a “major review” this year by the Senior Salaries Review Body, which could “rectify these problems”.
Sir Geoffrey acknowledged that work needed to be done on working conditions too, but the court reform programme was improving the buildings that judges operated from, allowing for better staffing and “innovative and effective IT solutions” which would “change the landscape unrecognisably”. Judges worked hard, but they were not “unreasonably overloaded”.
“It may be that judges generally would like to be more demonstrably appreciated by government and the media, but these factors do not spoil the enjoyment of the work we do.”
The chancellor added that it was “not enough to apply to become a deputy judge and then rest on your laurels” and that full-time judges “of the very highest calibre” were needed for the Business and Property Courts “if we are to maintain a system that supports a high-quality legal profession”.