Two reports on the topic of judicial diversity were released this week. The report from the Lords Constitution Committee suggested that targets should be set to appoint more judges from among women and members of the ethnic minorities should be considered if the judiciary does not make itself more diverse within the next five years. Only one in 20 judges is non-white and fewer than one in four is female, and this disparity is undermining the public’s confidence in the courts, said the committee. The select committee also called for judges to have more flexible working practices and career breaks, and for part-time posts on the bench. A report by Chris Paterson and Professor Alan Paterson from CentreForum suggested that the concept of “merit” be redefined and raised concerns that one branch of government risks becoming a self-perpetuating oligarchy. The Bar Council welcomed the findings and recommendations of the Lords Committee. Maura McGowan QC, Vice-Chairman of the Bar, said:
“We agree with many of the Committee’s findings, particularly the overriding principle that appointments should be made on merit. We also support the Committee’s views about the desirability of introducing more flexible working arrangements and career breaks to improve the diversity of the judiciary. The judiciary should be representative of the society it serves. We should always strive towards that aim.”
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has released a report on the UK US extradition treaty. The report argues that an urgent review of the “one-sided” rules is needed because it is easier to extradite Briton to America than vice versa and public confidence in the treaty has been shattered. The report suggests changes, including the introduction of an “evidence test” that would require some of the case against the person to be submitted as part of the extradition bid. The Government should also implement a “forum bar”, which would make it easier for an individual to be tried in their own country.
Television cameras are to be allowed into courts for the first time to film the sentencing of serious criminals. The move, to be announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, is designed to reduce the “mystique” of courtrooms and their sometimes arcane jargon, and to help the public re-engage with the criminal justice system. The legal profession gave a mixed reception to the news, Julian Young, the senior partner at a London law firm, said: “I don’t think it’s a very clever idea. Even in a limited form there may be dangers. It may become a circus – this is too serious an issue for that to happen.”
Court staff and lawyers have been forced to use Google Translate to communicate with non-English speaking defendants because of problems with the new interpreter service, it has been claimed. In some cases it has been claimed friends of alleged offenders have had to stand up in court to help explain what is going on to the defendant. One translator was also forced to get up a 3am to make a 564-mile round trip to appear in court for just eight minutes, under the new system. The problems come after the government awarded the interpreter contract to Applied Language Solutions, which took over on January 30.
The government has suffered a fresh series of defeats in the House of Lords over proposals to cut access to legal aid for children and in medical negligence cases. Having already forced nine unwelcome amendments onto the Ministry of Justice’s cost-cutting measures during the report stage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill, peers have now inflicted further damage on the legislation. At the third reading stage of the bill, peers voted by 232 to 220 to preserve legal aid funding for children so that they should not have to present their own cases in court.
The US supreme court heard the opening arguments in the politically charged legal challenge to Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms on Monday as the nine justices considered whether they have the authority to take on the case right now. The first of three days of hearings – the longest of any case in nearly half a century – focused on whether the punishment for not buying mandatory health insurance under the new law is a tax or a penalty. If it is a tax, then under the Anti-Injunction Act, the legislation cannot be challenged until the tax is collected beginning in 2015, and the court would not be able to hear the case now. If it is a penalty, the lawsuit can go ahead.