How the Royal Courts of Justice bridge the gap between Parliament and the judiciary
Former Labour MP and Solicitor General, Sir Ross Cranston, calls for more work to be done to ensure both Parliament and the judiciary understand better how each operates.
How much understanding do MPs have of the legal world? And how much do judges have of Parliament?
Fifty years ago it was still common for many MPs to be practising lawyers. The role of the MP was different then and it was possible to combine legal practice, especially as a barrister, and parliamentary duties. The demands on parliamentarians are so much greater now and the sitting hours different. A significant number of parliamentarians still have legal backgrounds but do not practice. Legal policy has a wider remit these days so those without legal backgrounds have a close interest, as membership of the Justice Select committee of the Commons and the Constitutional committee in the Lords shows.
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When I became a High Court judge in 2007 I was the first ex-MP to do so since Sir Jocelyn Simon QC MP became President of the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division in 1962. In the nineteenth and first part of the last century it was not unusual for the Lord Chancellor to appoint MPs to the High Court Bench. At one time this was done in a blatantly political way, but with time it became relatively non-partisan.
Undoubtedly a better understanding between Parliament and the courts is necessary. Parliamentarians need to understand the role of judges, the importance of concepts such as judicial independence and the practical difficulties the courts face. On the other hand, judges need to appreciate the parliamentary law-making processes and the pressures, particularly on MPs. Pressures from constituents and the press and can have a very direct impact on how, for example, MPs react to particular judicial decisions.
These factors point to creating more opportunities for contact between Parliament and the courts.
When Sir John Thomas became Lord Chief Justice in 2013 he was receptive to my suggestion that the judiciary should take the initiative. As an MP I knew of the good work of the Industry and Parliamentary Trust in fostering contact between Parliamentarians and industry. When I contacted the chief executive of the Trust, Nick Maher, he responded positively to the idea of a similar scheme with the courts.
With the support of the trustees, and the help in particular of one of them, Andrew Walker QC, a scheme was devised which was consistent with the objects of the Trust.
The IPT programmewith the courts aims to ensure both Parliament and the judiciary understand better how each operates. Its focus is mainly on courts dealing with commercial matters, but taking account that this has a broad definition and can cover the criminal courts (e.g., health and safety prosecutions) and tribunals (employment, tax).
The programme is over five days although those days can be taken in different weeks and over a number of months. There is a discussion beforehand where the parliamentarian can highlight their particular interest and a timetable is then tailor made. Nothing is set in stone and those administering the scheme try to accommodate the particular interests of the fellow. For example a programme could encompass time in the Chancery Division (including bankruptcy) and Commercial Court; with judges in the Court of Appeal hearing appeals on these matters; hearing a judicial review; and in an Employment Tribunal. Local sittings in or near an MP's constituency are also possible.
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