Lord Mayor’s Event for HM Judges 2021: Lord Chancellor Speech
The Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP spoke on the rule of law and how much he values the work of the judiciary
My Lord Mayor, my Lord Chief Justice, members of Her Majesty’s judiciary.
I would like to thank the Lord Mayor for organising the event this evening and to acknowledge all those colleagues joining us virtually. After the announcement on Monday, we can be quite sure that there will be many more of us here in person at these illustrious surroundings next year.
As the Lord Chief Justice said, this is the second time that I have had the honour to attend this event, which I have to concede is relatively rare for a modern Lord Chancellor – though not as rare as a Lord Mayor hosting two of them! I understand however, that I am about to join a smaller club of those in recent memory to have served in the role for two years. My second anniversary comes in a couple of weeks, so perhaps I shouldn’t tempt fate by saying any more about it!
In all seriousness, it is a great pleasure to be here as your Lord Chancellor and I would like to take the opportunity to reiterate my dedication to my oath: to respect the rule of law and to defend the judiciary. It is what drives me in my work as Lord Chancellor and it influences my thinking as I take decisions in government every day.
The rule of law as a principle is, among other things, a guarantee of freedom. That was at the forefront of my mind when the COVID-19 regulations were being put in place to keep the public safe. It is vital of course that a well-meaning executive does not seek to ‘overprotect’ the public to the point that they lose more freedoms than is absolutely necessary.
The public discourse around the provisions and renewal of the Coronavirus Act was robust but incredibly important. And I was pleased, not only that it was not a rubber stamp exercise, but that elements of its renewal – for example the unused mental health provisions – had a review mechanism enshrined in the legislation.
And in my defence of you, one of the questions that always comes to my mind as part of the decision-making process is this: does this decision truly value the enormous contribution that judges make to our society?
Now it is no exaggeration to say that the impact of the pandemic on the justice system has been analogous to the shock it felt during the Second World War. Then, like now, those in Parliament, in government, and our long-respected and admired judiciary recognised that the rule of law just cannot exist without a well-functioning justice system – accordingly doing everything possible to keep justice working.
Provision for the courts is, of course, another vital element of my oath. Since this time last year, the Lord Chief Justice and I have continued to do everything in our power to support you in the effort to keep the courts and tribunals moving. I have invested in extra staff, improved technology, and provided additional Nightingale courtrooms.
But we are only able to create the right conditions for the courts and tribunals – it is you, our world-leading judiciary, together with our HMCTS staff who make our system work. I continue to be incredibly grateful for everything you are doing to hear as many cases as possible. Let’s take one example, the Family Courts demonstrated huge commitment to justice by sitting an unprecedented number of days last year – no doubt making a world of difference to many people’s lives by doing so.
And you are already making enormous progress on the journey towards that recovery. The Criminal Courts, for example, have been completing cases at around pre-pandemic levels all of this year, and we have now seen the outstanding caseload start to turn the corner, coming down in recent weeks.
But we recognise that there remains more to do. As you know, the Lord Chief Justice and I have lifted the cap on sitting days for this financial year and as restrictions ease we will ramp up capacity – to enable you to hear as many cases as possible, so that waiting times can come down and justice can be delivered more quickly.
And I’d like to offer the strongest reassurance that both he and I remain committed to making the big decisions to recover the whole system from the effects of COVID-19 and to ensure that we learn lessons from the pandemic to improve justice for the future.
Now your work during COVID-19 has clearly been extraordinary, but the contribution you make every day to keeping our society just – protecting the public from harm and guaranteeing the fairness that underpins confidence in trade, as well as solving a range of disputes – is exemplary.
If we are to value the role that you play then we must recognise it through judicial remuneration. And that is why I have made very clear my intention to reform judicial pensions as soon as possible.
I also want to raise the mandatory retirement age, which will allow us to benefit from your experience for even longer, which I believe will be crucial as we work through the accumulation of cases caused by the pandemic. It should also help us to attract the high-quality candidates that are required, particularly those interested in applying to the bench later in their professional life.
As you may know, I have worked on both sides of the bench – practising for many years as a criminal barrister, before sitting part-time as a Recorder in the Crown Courts on the Midland Circuit.
All ministers of the Crown have an obligation to the rule of law but those years spent in and around the courts have given me the deepest appreciation, not just for what the rule of law means in the modern context, but also the crucial work of the courts, of you, in supporting it.
As Lord Chancellor, my oath means that I also have a responsibility to maintain that fine balance that exists between our institutions through the constitution and I hope that my experiences make me well-placed to fulfil it.
That duty is exactly why the government promised to look again at our constitution. As you know, we are already making progress with various reviews but there is more to do. By re-examining the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, I am determined to clarify the role of Lord Chancellor – so that future holders of the office can have confidence in the powers that they hold, and so that the relationship with the other branches of the constitution is fully understood by all.
In a system that is based quite rightly on checks and balances, it is crucial for the Lord Chancellor to have the necessary skills and knowledge for the role. It is only through the right blend of experiences that he or she can truly be a linchpin between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. As I have said before, the requirement for me to resign as a Recorder on taking office as Lord Chancellor really brought that home very powerfully to me.
I think it is right therefore that a review of the role should examine whether we need to clarify the qualifications required for holding the office of Lord High Chancellor – to be certain that they are able to value and appreciate the enormous contribution of our judiciary. It is important that we consult widely on an issue as important as this, and I am very keen to hear your views to inform the approach that we wish to take. As ever, my door remains open to you – on this issue and any others affecting our judiciary.
As I close let me reiterate my thanks to you for everything you do to keep justice moving no matter what the circumstances and to ensure that the rule of law continues to be one of the defining principles of our democracy.
My promise is that I will continue to value you – to put my respect for the rule of law and my duty to defend the judiciary at the heart of everything I do as Lord Chancellor. And I will continue using my own experiences on the Bench to advocate for you from inside government and at the Cabinet table.
Thank you for listening.