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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Legal concerns over Blair's reforms
Former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, centre, Lord Woolf, left, and Lord Phillips
Barristers are concerned about the detail of changes to the judiciary
Barristers have given a cautious welcome to changes to the judicial system, announced in Tony Blair's recent reshuffle of cabinet ministers.

The chairman of the Bar Council said the changes were "bold and imaginative", but care must be taken to avoid politics influencing the legal system.

"The independence of the judiciary and the legal system must be protected because that's at the heart of the legal system," Matthias Kelly QC told the BBC.

"And we have to avoid any political placemen finding their way onto the judicial appointments commission, that mustn't happen."

But one Labour MP admitted the changes had caused "confusion" and would have done nothing to reassure people who had lost trust in the prime minister.

The Bar is actually very supportive of these changes, we think the prime minister has been bold and imaginative
Chairman of the Bar Council Matthias Kelly

The sweeping changes include the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor who sits as both judge and cabinet minister, a new supreme court to replace the law lords, and an independent body to appoint judges.

The reforms will be overseen by a new department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA).

"The Bar is actually very supportive of these changes, because we think the prime minister has been bold and imaginative," said Mr Kelly, who leads barristers in England and Wales.

"What we are saying is we need to give a great deal of attention to the detail, because the devil is in the detail.

"It is who, for example, should appoint those who sit upon the judicial appointments commission, and who should be on the commission."

Consultation promised

Mr Kelly had earlier appeared to criticise the speed and breadth of the changes, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme they were "difficult to digest".

PLANNED CHANGES INCLUDE
Supreme court to replace the law lords
Independent body to appoint judges
Abolition of Lord Chancellor's role (much-criticised, as being both judge and cabinet minister)
New department of constitutional affairs - but not a full Justice Ministry

He later appeared more positive, explaining: "They are very large changes and we're all coming to grips with them, as I imagine many people in government are too."

Labour MP George Foulkes, a former Scottish Office and International Development minister said confusion over what exactly was planned would not improve Mr Blair's image in the minds of those who distrusted him.

Areas of "some confusion" included the DCA and "who was going to be Scottish and Welsh Secretaries and what their range of responsibilities were going to be," he told BBC1's Politics Show, to be screened on Sunday.

"I think the lack of trust in Tony Blair is not justified but I must say that, for those who don't trust him, the events of the reshuffle won't help to improve the situation.

"I think it - well can I use a Downing Street expression - it looked a wee bit hazy."

'Botch job'

The government has promised widespread consultation on its plans.

But that has barely stemmed the flow of criticism of the reshuffle as being "chaotic and botched", and as an example of the high-handed nature of Mr Blair's government.

Shadow deputy prime minister David Davis said the prime minister was treating the constitution as "his own personal bauble".

He said the changes seemed to have been put together as a "botch job" after Home Secretary David Blunkett blocked plans for a new and powerful Ministry of Justice.

But the constitutional changes were defended by Labour Party Chairman Ian McCartney, who said they represented a "fantastic move forward".

And Solicitor General Harriet Harman MP said the changes were "entirely sensible" and "probably long overdue".




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