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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 19:53 GMT 20:53 UK
Top judge attacks reshuffle
Lord Woolf
Lord Woolf worries key institutions are not well enough protected
The most senior judge in England and Wales has criticised the way the government decided to abolish the historic post of lord chancellor in last month's reshuffle.

In a speech to judges on Wednesday evening, Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf said "it must be a cause for concern" that the job was abolished "without any consultation with the judiciary".

Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday moved to defend what critics have called a "botched" reshuffle, and said there would still be proper consultation.

And new Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer told Wednesday's annual Judges Dinner in the City of London that the new arrangements are designed to provide the best possible justice system.

Constitutional worries

The Conservatives have accused Mr Blair of "tearing up a thousand years of constitutional history in a single press release".

Even supporters of the changes say the government should have consulted with the public and experts before announcing that the post would be scrapped.

Lord Woolf said the decision raises questions "as to whether our constitution provides the protection it should for our constitutional institutions?"

But Lord Falconer, who heads up the new Department of Constitutional Affairs, told the dinner the time has come for a "clear break with the past".

The UK needs a minister "able to focus exclusively on delivering a better justice system for all", he said.

Lord Falconer insisted the drive for reform does not involve "rejecting the basic principles of our constitution".

Last week, he told MPs it would take about 18 months to scrap the post of lord chancellor.

On Wednesday, he added: "The sooner we make it clear you cannot combine being a judge with being a minister the better".

Blair's defence

The prime minister was pressed about the way he managed the reshuffle when he appeared before a "super-committee" of the most senior MPs on Tuesday.

He rebutted criticism of the changes, saying: "In this day and age it is pretty odd that a political appointee of the Prime Minister appoints judges.

"And secondly, the other great anxiety I have had is to make sure that the Lord Chancellors' Department, as it was, actually focuses on the court system, which is a vast undertaking.

"The court system, particularly the criminal courts, in this country is not yet operating in the way we would like to see for the good of better policing and justice. That's the reason for it."

Mr Blair added: "These things are going to go through a consultation process.

"There will be a process of parliamentary debate. Perhaps we should have drawn more attention to that at the time."

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