MPs might need to be given instruction by the country’s most senior judges on the independence of the law, the Lord Chief Justice said today as he warned that political interference in the courts has reached unprecedented levels.
Lord Burnett of Maldon said “there’s been nothing quite like it in my experience” as he hit out over the extent of meddling by politicians.
He added that he was concerned that some parliamentarians did not have “an instinctive understanding” of the need to respect the independence of the judiciary and the constitutional boundaries between lawmakers and judges.
Lord Burnett’s comments follow a row over a letter sent by a number of Tory MPs to judges about the Charlie Elphicke sexual assault case which was denounced last week by the Lord Chief Justice’s officials as “improper”.
Other recent controversies include the row over the Supreme Court’s Brexit ruling on Article 50 and the Home Office material criticising “activist” immigration lawyers.
In his annual press conference today, Lord Burnett said thatsuch “general attacks on lawyers are extremely unfortunate” and that “a general attack on the legal profession undermines the rule of law” as he disclosed that the judiciary is considering tuition for new parliamentarians on how to deal with judges.
“It does seem to me that even if it amounts to a very short briefing to new members of both Houses of legislature of the boundaries between our respective rules and the need to respect the independence of the judiciary, that is something that we are considering,” he said.
Warning that “there’s been nothing quite like it in my experience”, Lord Burnett added. “There have been a number of instances which have bubbled up into the public domain of what might be thought to be interference. There needs to be sensitivity displayed by all branches of the constitution as to the proper sphere of the others and where the boundaries lie."
He insisted that judges understood their role, but warned that "I’m less confident that all parliamentarians have an instinctive understanding of where those boundaries lie.”
Lord Burnett also repeated a recent warning that court delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic could lead to cases collapsing as witnesses lose interest or other problems occur.
“It’s the experience of everybody involved in the criminal justice system that the longer the gap between the reporting of an offence and its eventual trial, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. It could be as simple as important witnesses losing interest for example in continuing to pursue a case.
“Custody trials have to be given priority, these are people in custody awaiting trial, so my underlying concern is that as a result of necessarily prioritising those cases, the cases where defendants are not in custody are likely to get hearing dates longer into the future.”
He said the number of courts operating was being increased to about 300 by early next year to help reduce the backlog but that because cases where defendants are in custody were being prioritised, others would be further down the queue.
Lord Burnett also disclosed that the way in which judges handle rape cases is being kept under “constant review”.
He pointed out,, however, that the conviction rate of rape suspects brought to court was as high as for other types of serious crime and suggested that the problems identified by campaigners with prosecutions lay principally before cases reached trial.