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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November, 2003, 04:02 GMT
Thorny problem of legal reform

By Danny Shaw
BBC home affairs correspondent

The government made it sound so simple. Abolish the post of Lord Chancellor; set up a Supreme Court to replace the Law Lords; establish a Judicial Appointments Commission; and consider whether the barristers' rank of QCs was still needed.

The name-plates at Selborne House, near Victoria, headquarters of the Lord Chancellor's Department, were swiftly replaced with signs saying Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Lord Irvine left the government, and Lord Falconer stepped into his shoes.

A few weeks later, three consultation papers were published setting out the proposals. The course seemed clear: the journey was under way.

Backlash

But if the speed with which the plans were announced was designed to stifle criticism or attempts to thwart the plans it failed.

There was a strong backlash, particularly from judges, who said that such far-reaching reforms warranted consultation before they were announced.

Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, told the Lord Mayor's judges' dinner in July it was a "cause for concern" that the decision to scrap the Lord Chancellor's post had been taken without discussions with judges.

The scales of justice are delicately balanced
He revealed later he had been told only "minutes" before the announcement was made.

Opposition parties also complained the government had been over-hasty.

But as the reforms themselves were studied in detail, it became clear they would not be as straightforward as first appeared.

The main difficulty was that the Lord Chancellor performs so many functions and roles. There are 347 Acts of Parliament which contain references to his duties and powers.

The Judges' Council - which represents all levels of the judiciary - said ministers had "failed to appreciate the full extent of the constitutional deficit which will result from the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor".

Lord Woolf said he was concerned that without the Lord Chancellor in place to safeguard the independence of the judiciary there was a risk the institutions may not be robust enough to prevent political interference.

Then there is the Supreme Court. Although four Law Lords came out in favour, six said they were against the idea.

Judges also expressed concern over the costs of moving the existing panel out of the House of Lords into a new building.

But the government is assisted in an important respect.

Constitutional reform is not in the glare of publicity; it is not a vote-winner, nor a vote-loser.

No rush

Reforms can be tackled away from the spotlight; the details can be discussed and ironed out without the risk of political support ebbing away.

There is no hurry either. It has taken hundreds of years for the British constitution to evolve, so a few more months dotting i's and crossing t's will upset, nor surprise, no-one.

What is clear, though, is that there is no going back. Even the judges who are opposed to various aspects of the reforms accept that the legal reforms will happen, the only question now is how it happens.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf
"The independence of the judiciary is vitally important for the public"




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