Lord Beith: We should promote the UK judicial system and the rule of law
Former Justice Committee Chair Lord Beith writes ahead of his Lords question on 'Promoting public understanding of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary'.
We need to think about strengthening public understanding of the importance of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. It is clearly possible to get a job on the Daily Mail or the Daily Express without having any obvious understanding of what would happen to our country if the courts did not protect due process and governments could simply override the courts by executive act. It is clearly possible to rise to a Cabinet position without appreciating that requiring the Executive to observe the law cannot simply be dismissed as the judges deciding to "frustrate the will of the people". Silence from those charged with upholding the law within Government will not do. It leaves the way open for gradual steps to lead to arbitrary government.
I suspect that quite a lot of the general public instinctively understand that government should never be above the law, and that Parliament is the place where law can be changed. But how long will that understanding survive the mob rule chant that judges are "enemies of the people"? We need to uphold the principles of judicial independence and the rule of law at every level, from the Cabinet and the editorial conferences of national newspapers to the classroom and the workplace. Governments, like the rest of us, will sometimes disagree with judges, as we are all entitled to do. But the proper course is to consider an appeal if there are grounds for doing so, not defiance or denigration.
And we should not be seduced by the idea that because courts have to rule on questions that have political implications - which they have always done - we should start to select judges according to the political and social opinions they may hold, like Justices of the US Supreme Court. In this country we choose judges who have the ability to set aside whatever political opinions they may have and to judge the case without fear or favour as a matter of law. The fact that it is sometimes difficult to do so, and that judgments will be challenged, is no reason to undermine the whole process. You only have to observe the systematic destruction of independent judicial authority in, say, Zimbabwe, to understand what a valuable asset we have in the rule of law. You only have to reflect on the power Donald Trump may have, with a Republican Congress, to choose politically sympathetic Justices to fill vacancies on the US Supreme Court to worry about what would happen if we went down that road.
I will be asking Ministers to take this issue a great deal more seriously than some of them have done. If their response is to accept that more could be done in schools to teach young people about the rule of law, with which I would agree, they also need to make sure that the same message is emerging from the top of government.
The Rt Hon. the Lord Beith is a Liberal Democrat peer