Judges take on ministers – again

Government ministers need to refrain from criticising judges and their legal rulings, the Lord’s constitutional committee has found.

It is the second time the committee has called for the government to clear up the matter by updating the ministerial code, but Lords say no action has been forthcoming.

“It is important that government and ministers understand and respect
the vital independence of our judiciary,” Lord Goodlad, chairman of the committee, said.

The committee, which includes a former Lord chief justice and two former attorneys generals, was upset at statement by former home secretary John Reid when he was in office.

Mr Reid publicly criticised a sentence handed down to convicted paedophile Craig Sweeney as “unduly lenient”.

The incident caused widespread consternation among legal professionals and scholars, with some senior figures saying the home secretary was worryingly close to interfering with judicial independence.

Lord Falconer, then Lord chancellor, also came in for criticism for failing to ensure ministers do not impugn individual judges.

The government welcomed the committee’s last findings, and promised to review the ministerial code, but the Lords have been forced into making a second statement after no action has been forthcoming.

The decision to create a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) out of part of the Home Office and the Department of Constitutional Affairs also came in for criticism, with peers saying the judiciary should be consulted before such fundamental changes to “the machinery of government”.

“Before the establishment of the Ministry of Justice the government
failed to consult with the Lord chancellor or the Lord chief justice,
who were supposed to be responsible for ensuring the views of judges
where reflected in any changes,” Lord Goodlad continued.

“We call on the government to ensure that any future changes to the court system are preceded by proper consultation with all the relevant bodies.”