Extraordinary scenes in the Lords yesterday when peers complained about Jack Straw’s decision to block the appointment of Lord Justice Wall as president of the High Court Family Division.
Lord Thomas of Gresford QC, a LibDem, summed it up pretty neatly.
The Lord Chancellor rejected the recommendation of the Judicial Appointments Commission in the appointment of Sir Nicholas Wall to the post of president. He is regarded as a most thorough and compassionate judge in the legal profession. Was that because, last November, he told the Association of Lawyers for Children that it was the duty of judges to come off the Bench and speak out about government changes to the law that were damaging the service to children and families, or because he warned that, without proper legal aid funding, the justice system would implode and that children would suffer the most? Was not the Lord Chancellor’s decision entirely political?
For the government, Lord Tunicliffe could make no meaningful response. The Earl of Onslow said that the hapless Whip could not “explain what is going on without looking at his papers and mumbling”. In Onslow’s view, the whole procedure was a disgrace.
The question had been raised by Baroness Deech, who complained, rightly, that judicial appointments were taking much longer than when they used to be made by the Lord Chancellor. after another peer pointed out that there had been a three-month delay in making the appointment, Tunicliffe seemed almost proud of the fact that the appointment of Lord Justice Dyson to the Supreme Court had taken seven-and-a-half months.
Lady Butler-Sloss, herself a former president of the Family Division, pointed out that whoever took over would not have a handover period. Sir Mark Potter sits for the last time next Wednesday and is then going on holiday.
Lord Pannick QC also accused Straw of blocking Wall’s appointment on political grounds. Not that he put it so crudely. Pannick simply pointed out that previous Lord Chancellors, both Tory and Labour, had been willing to appoint judges whose views the Lord Chancellor did not necessarily share.
Perhaps Lord Woolf, who was cut off as he got to his feet, would have made the most powerful point of all. Few judges will seek a thankless job if the price is public humiliation.
Perhaps Wall will withdraw his application. It would be a pity if he did. After all, Walls last rather longer than Straw.