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Time for a judicial makeover?

Martin Shaw stars as Judge John Deed
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 8 July 1600 BST
On Radio 4 and online

The judiciary jealously guards its independence and has traditionally preserved it by speaking through its judgments alone.

But in a modern, media hungry democracy, do we want - perhaps even need - a more in-touch senior judiciary? One increasingly visible and willing to explain their often long and often dense decisions?

Carole Malone of the News of the World has no doubt there's an urgent need for change.

"I think our judges are largely out of touch," she says.

"People see them now as old men who belong to a pass-the-port culture of a long time ago."

But former High Court judge Sir Hugh Laddie thinks it is critics like Carole Malone who fail to understand how the judiciary has changed.

"They were not people who used quill pens," he says.

"They were computer literate, they were savvy, they liked football, or rugby, they liked popular music. They were really quite ordinary nice people and not hide-bound traditionalists."

The problem is that the general public doesn't seem to be aware of this.

And former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken - who was convicted of perjury and conspiring to pervert the course of justice - thinks a certain distance is appropriate.

Former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken
I think it's not a bad thing that a judge who is on the bench, deliberately elevated above the courtroom, should be rather like that in real life. He should be, or she should be, something of an awesome figure, or a very respected figure
Jonathan Aitken

So what should or could the judiciary do?

David Rigg, the managing director of the communications consultancy Project Associates, suggests judges copy the example of the monarchy and engage with the media with care. Going on Big Brother may be a step too far, he adds.

There are some tentative moves towards greater engagement with a few serving judges now fully media-trained. They, though, pick and chose interviews very carefully and so far have only given four.

Witness Anonymity Bill

During this series of Law In Action we have reported in detail on the problem of witness anonymity.

To recap, the Law Lords' have effectively ruled that anonymous witness testimony at trial is inadmissible and invited Parliament to legislate. Something in the region of six hundred cases are thought to be affected and already one major murder trial has been halted.

The Government's Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Bill is currently whizzing through all its stages in the Commons today. But might this be a case of more haste less speed?

A number of senior lawyers we've spoken to believe the Bill as it stands may well fail to comply with the Human Rights Act - a requirement of all new proposed legislation.

If they're right, the problems faced by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Government could simply recur. We'll keep you posted.

Fast-track under fire

Back in January, we reported on a little-known aspect of the immigration system: it's known as the fast-track asylum procedure. Unlike normal asylum hearings they take just a few days - and that's led to arguments that the process may be unjust.

Now an authoritative United Nations report has criticised the way fast-track works.

The report says "decisions often fail to focus on the individual merits of the claim."

There are worries about mistakes in assessing whether asylum seekers are telling the truth: about a high prevalence of speculative arguments and a lack of focus on material elements of the claim.

The UNHCR says sometimes "an excessively high burden of proof is being placed on applicants."

In response, the UK Border Agency sent us a statement saying: "Our asylum decisions are humane and compassionate and crucially oversight by independent judges helps ensure justice is done. Because we want a fair as well as firm system, we ask UNHCR to keep our work under review to help us improve and their reports are always welcome. Our detained fast track process is fast but has been tested and found lawful by Britain's highest courts. We know we get almost all decisions right because only a small number of appeals from within the fast track system are ever upheld."

Children at Risk

We received lots of responses to last week's programme.

Coming Up

Next week we have an exclusive interview with former Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls and senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham.

As the Bingham era draws to a close we discuss the effect of the Human Rights Act on our law, the growth of judicial power under Judicial Review and look forward to the birth of the new Supreme Court.

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, Law In Action would like to hear from you.

You can contact us by email at or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS or you can call us on 020 8752 5646.

Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 8 July 2008 at 1600 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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