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Apart from the monarchy, the judiciary is one of the few institutions in Britain that still commands some measure of respect. When something goes badly wrong, prime ministers know that the only reliable way of staunching public disquiet is to appoint a judge-led inquiry. Political leaders may then discover, to their cost, that the judge owes them no favours.

To protect this priceless asset of judicial independence, we need to take great care over the way we choose our judges. In the UK, they are selected rather than elected and there is no support from any quarter for changing this. What's controversial at the moment is the extent to which the government of the day should have a say in the most senior appointments.

Until 2006, a cabinet minister had the entire say: all judges in England and Wales were chosen by the Lord Chancellor. Because successive holders of that unique post managed to keep their distance from other members of the government, the system worked surprisingly well; it was efficient, flexible and produced judges of high quality. 

The model of a government minister presiding over the House of Lords in both its legislative and its judicial roles became increasingly difficult to sustain once the Lord Chancellor became responsible for the huge legal aid budget. So although Tony Blair badly mishandled his attempt in 2003 to turn the Lord Chancellor into just another departmental minister, it had become inevitable by then that the Lord Chancellor's responsibility for selecting judges would be transferred to a new Judicial Appointments Commission. 

The commission created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was set up with insufficient thought. Ministers were never going to get the "diverse" judiciary they were looking for by simply having an Asian woman in the chair. The government's attempt to put things right is to be found in part two of the Crime and Courts Bill, published in May.

The bill includes a few well-meaning but ultimately pointless reforms. If two candidates for a judicial post are "of equal merit", selection panels are permitted to prefer one over the other "for the purpose of increasing diversity" within the judiciary. But it is very unlikely that any two candidates will be of equal merit in the real world.

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