Judging Judges – Is there a need for greater judicial scrutiny?

I attended Cheryl Thomas‘ inaugural lecture at the Judicial Institute at UCL last Wednesday where she talked about judicial studies and in particular, the study of judges and juries. I’d never really thought about judicial studies until I was trying to find empirical evidence of the behaviour of juries in criminal trials for a paper I was writing. All I found was a study from the early 1990s – The Crown Court Study, by Professor Michael Zander and Paul Henderson, so I used this slightly outdated evidence, feeling a little disheartened about my research skills. At the lecture I found out that this paper was in fact one of the few empirical studies of juries in the UK. Thomas described the study of juries in the UK as a as a “black hole” with academics remaining cautious about conducting research in the area, for fear of breaching Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act.

Royal Courts of Justice Photo courtesy of Gareth Davies

However it is not only the study of juries that is largely neglected in the UK, but perhaps more surprisingly, the study of judges is also neglected even though this wouldn’t be limited by the Contempt of Court Act. This paucity of research could be due to a number of factors, most notably the commonly held belief that the judiciary should not be interfered with. In 1955 Lord Kilmuir famously claimed that there is a need for ignorance to “protect” the judiciary from scrutiny, establishing the so-called Kilmuir rules. This changed in the 1980s when these rules were revoked. In March, the current master of the rolls, Lord Neuberger, stated in a speech to the Student Law Society at Birmingham University:

“it seems to me only proper that judges, with their wisdom and experience, should be free to comment extra-judicially on a wide range of issues. In doing so they play an educative role. In areas such as constitutional principles, the role and independence of the judiciary, the functioning of the legal system, and access to justice, and even important issues of law, this role cannot be underestimated.”

His assertion that members of the judiciary should be able to make extra-judicial comments as well as having a public profile also came with a warning that judges must be cautious about what they say publicly.

In the US the area of judicial studies has greatly evolved since the 1950s with prominent academics such as Theodore L. Becker making it a well respected field of study. In the UK there has been little attempt to study the work of judges, the book by JAG Griffith on politics of the judiciary is based on very little empirical evidence and has failed to encourage further study. This also means that assertions made by those who write or comment on behaviour of the judiciary, as well as assumptions or sweeping statements, often go unchallenged regardless of their accuracy.

Thomas claimed that academics in England and Wales lack curiosity in relation to the judiciary, but she also stated that while they are not in opposition with judges, they do not have a great deal of contact with one another. It appears to her that academics have lost touch and no longer have the appropriate skills to study the judiciary.

The key problem in the judiciary of England and Wales lies with judicial appointments and the failure to improve diversity. While there is some progress being made in relation to the number of women appointed in the judiciary, the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates remains very low. The current appointments to the judiciary of England and Wales are significantly unrepresentative of society, this is not only regarding gender and ethnicity but also taking into account socio-economic background.

The judiciary of England and Wales is often cited as being one of “the best” legal systems in the world. Although there is no international study to confirm or reject such an assumption, there is evidence to suggest that it fares very well in comparison to other states in terms of corruption and speed. Nevertheless it’s reputation is tainted by its poor diversity statistics, the public debate on the issue of diversity has become sterile and unproductive as a result of progress being so slow.

Establishing judicial studies as a respectable and rigorous academic field could not only increase public understanding and interest in the judiciary, but it could also serve to improve the quality and openness of our legal system.

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One response to “Judging Judges – Is there a need for greater judicial scrutiny?

  1. The key issue is one of competence and fairness, not diversity. My experience of women judges, for over 25 years, has been substantially positive. This is not because they are women – it’s because they have been generally very good as judges. Now it may be that they have had higher hurdles to clear than the equivalent male lawyers in order to reach the bench, but I do have confidence in the selection procedure overseen by the Judicial Appointments Commission. I think that over time, as the selection procedure comes to account for more and more judges, the diversity of the bench will certainly improve.

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