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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
Sweeping changes to justice system

Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

When the dust from this reshuffle settles, it will be seen that the most significant development by far is the creation of a supreme court to replace the law lords and the abolition of the most historic post in government, that of lord chancellor.

It will also be recognised, if it wasn't already, that the greatest bar to these reforms was the man who has now retired after six years in office, Lord Irvine.

First, the supreme court. No other constitutional democracy has its highest court as part of the legislature.

It was self-evidently an anachronism and was attacked in robust terms by the senior law lord, Lord Bingham, last year.

Under the present arrangement, the lord chancellor is permitted to sit as a judge in the House of Lords - which he does infrequently, it must be said - and hold a position in the Cabinet.

Scales of justice
The legislature and judiciary will be separated when the law lords are abolished
Though this dual role has looked increasingly unsustainable, especially since the Human Rights Act became law in 2000, it has been consistently defended by Lord Irvine.

Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of the human rights group, Liberty, welcomed the change.

"A modern democracy needs to be based on sensible and logical rules not on anachronistic traditions, " he said.

Then there's the question of who appoints the judges.

With the sweeping away of the lord chancellor's post, there will be a new judicial appointments commission.

Grilling

It will recommend candidates for the bench.

That much we know. But we don't yet know how it will operate.

In the United States, for example, candidates for the Supreme Court are quizzed publicly about their views by the Senate judiciary committee.

South Africa has a judicial services commission, with lay members, which grills candidates for the constitutional court, often in public.

Lord Irvine
Irvine retires as Lord Chancellor
It is a safe bet that when plans for Britain's commission are published before parliament's summer recess, they will be much more modest than either of those examples.

Perhaps the most intriguing unresolved question is how the Home Office and the new Department for Constitutional Affairs will co-exist and which bit of his empire, David Blunkett will lose.

It could well be responsibility for criminal justice reform.

And while the abolition of the lord chancellor's post was being condemned by the Earl of Onslow, as "playing Pooh sticks with 800 years of British history," the public policy modernisers were rubbing their hands with glee at the suddenly transformed constitutional landscape.




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