Headlines: March 7th, 2005

Magistrates who have legal qualifications could be fast tracked into posts as judges as part of a series of measures to widen the poll from which members of the judiciary are selected. Other people who are qualified but not practising in the courts system could also be considered.The proposals have been unveiled by Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, in a drive to encourage women, people from minority ethnic groups and lawyers with disabilities to apply for judicial office. Lord Falconer stressed that appointments would still be made on merit.

He said that as well as encouraging applications from under represented groups the government was considering allowing academic lawyers, legal executives and others to become eligible to apply for judicial office. For the first time, too, magistrates who are legally qualified could be be fast-tracked to the higher judiciary. The government believes that magistrates, who currently hear 97 per cent of all criminal cases, may be well placed for higher office so there will be a direct link between the magistracy and the rest of the judiciary.

The government is also looking at formal career breaks for judges and judge-shadowing schemes for students as well as focusing on disability and pursuing mentoring and role models for judges. The proposals are the result of a consultation process by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. This took a radical look at what was needed to broaden the group from which applicants for judicial appointment are drawn.

From April this year, part-time working will be extended to judicial offices below the High Court. Lord Falconer said he would also look at a career break scheme for serving judges as a means of helping people to balance their working life with their commitments as parents and carers. It is believed that this would encourage lawyers to apply for judicial appointment earlier, in the knowledge that they will be able to take a career break later.

Lord Falconer said, “The judiciary of England and Wales is second to none in its skills and understanding. Judicial appointments will continue to be made on merit. But our aim must be to encourage more talented people to apply – whatever their gender, whatever their background. We need to widen the pool of those who wish to become a judge, and those who are eligible to do so. Only then can we be sure of appointing the best.”