A curious opposition attempt to abolish the post of Chief Executive of the Supreme Court and to replace the court’s staff with “a senior Clerk, perhaps a few caretakers and a couple of librarians” was abandoned yesterday in the House of Commons after a short debate.  We are pleased to say that the Court and its staff emerged unscathed.

The House was considering the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when Shadow Justice Minister Henry Bellingham launched his attack.  He advanced a clause designed to amend the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to abolish the post of Chief Executive of the Supreme Court and put various of the functions of the post onto the President of the Court. 

The motivation was said to be cost cutting.  Mr Bellingham complained that, while the annual cost of servicing the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords was £600,000, the annual cost of running the Supreme Court is £13.5 million.  He drew attention to a Parliamentary answer on 2 November 2009 which said that

“The Supreme Court has 39 employees. Of those 39 employees, four earn between £50,000 and £75,000, one earns between £75,000 and £100,000, and one earns more than £100,000.”

He suggested that the employee earning more than £100,000 was the Chief Executive and that the way to save money was to abolish the post.   “Why”, said Mr Bellingham,

“cannot the Supreme Court be run with a senior Clerk, perhaps a few caretakers and a couple of librarians? Let us get the cost down to a sensible level”.

He went on to explain the Conservative Party’s attitude to the Supreme Court

“As the Minister well knows, the Conservatives would not have gone down the Supreme Court route. On the other hand, we are pragmatic politicians. We are not going to simply scrap the arrangement and spend a lot  of money on reversing these changes. What we do want to do, if we win the election, is ensure that the court works more efficiently and gives better value for money. We do not believe that a cost of more than £13.5 million, and probably rising, represents good value for money.”

In response, the Minister, Michael Wills, made what might be thought to be the entirely fair point that abolition of the post of Chief Executive would mean more work for the President of the Court, “thereby reducing the time that this individual – ex officio, they will be talented, skilled and experienced – has to spend on the crucial judicial work that is the court’s core role”.  He also drew attention to the fact that the amendment would compromise the independence of the Supreme Court by putting responsibility for its finances and operation back on the Ministry of Justice.

Mr Bellingham’s retreat was swift and descisive

“The Minister, in his usual charming way, has been extremely persuasive. Although he made some good points, we do not in any way resile from the arguments that we advanced. Our point is simple: the chief executive post at such expense is a huge luxury. What is wrong with a senior clerk or a manager on a much lower salary carrying out those admin roles? That is what we would like to see, but because of the Minister’s charm and persuasion, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.”

The Supreme Court Chief Executive can breathe freely once again.

This bizarre proposal is, however, perhaps a reminder of a more serious point: that even where the constitutional independence of the judiciary itself is not directly challenged, the administrative machinery which supports judicial decision making is, under our present constitution, vulnerable to parliamentary tinkering.  Fortunately, abolition of the Supreme Court Chief Executive does not appear on Mr Cameron’s list of “pledges” to the Sun newspaper.