It may be recess but the Parliamentary timetable waits for no-one. Committee stage of the Pensions Bill starts next Monday 28th and amendments for the first day of committee had to be placed in the Public Bill Office by yesterday at 4.00pm. I have added my name to that of three former Lord Chancellors (Lords Mackay of Clashfern, Irvine of Lairg and Falconer of Thoroton) to protest the proposed change to Judicial Pension contributions, which significantly alter the terms and conditions of the Judiciary for those who are already in post as well as future judges. We are proposing that the terms and conditions of the Judiciary should not be altered by legislation for existing judges without their consent.
Upping the contributions from well-heeled judges rather than the taxpayer bearing the cost as now will naturally be popular with the majority of people in the Chamber until they think through the consequences for maintaining an independent Judiciary. On the face of it, the bill shows a Government determined that middle class people should take a hit on their public sector pensions like many other public sector workers will be expected to do. You might ask why, with no personal interest in this matter (there are no judges in my family as far as I know) I feel so strongly that the Government is wrong. It is because there have been international agreements that to maintain an independent Judiciary it is essential that the Executive should not be able to tamper with the terms and conditions of a judge after appointment, allowing them to be free of the subtle pressures that can be exerted by Governments on their freedom to make independent and unpopular judgments.
There have been two occasions recently when I thought the Government’s statements about a judicial decision were worrying and plain wrong. The first was the noisy opposition to the right of prisoners to vote in elections following a ruling of the European Court, whose judgments we are committed to upholding. The point of prison is to remove the freedom of the individual, a severe enough punishment, not to deny him all other rights as a citizen. The right for sentenced prisoners to vote is non-contentious elsewhere; about 40 per cent of Council of Europe countries have no restrictions at all. Others retain a partial ban or, like France and Germany, let judges decide in individual cases. Britain has stuck to a blanket ban, resisting a ruling in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights. Parliament vote last week to defy that judgment.
The second occasion was David Cameron and Theresa May’s saying earlier this week that they were ‘appalled’ by the Supreme Court’s decision that a former sex offender should be able to challenge a lifetime on the Register of Offenders. But it’s common sense, and a clinical reality, that there are circumstances in which, after a period of time, an offender no longer poses any real risk of committing further offences and the principle of proportionality under the Human Rights Act 1998 requires a procedure by which the individual could apply to have his or her name taken off the register. This does not mean that such an application would necessarily succeed and it is down to parliament to devise a procedure to satisfy that right of appeal.
Both these issues are deeply unpopular with the public, but surely we do not want judges who are moved by popular opinion but rather by their independent judgment on fairness and proportionality? These values serve all of us. So I will be speaking up for maintaining every shred of the Judiciary’s independence from Executive pressure, including the right to vary their pension arrangements post-hoc.