Lord Mayor's annual judges dinner

Jack Straw

17 July 2007
Mansion House, London

The Lord Chancellor acknowledged the quality and integrity of Her Majesty's judges as he committed himself to upholding the oaths of office he had taken as Lord Chancellor.

My Lord Mayor, my Lords, my Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls, Aldermen, my Recorder, Sheriffs, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted and honoured to propose a toast to you the Lord Mayor and to you the Lady Mayoress. Your hospitality is as famous as your residence is magnificent. For five years as Foreign Secretary you graciously invited me to speak at a highlight of the diplomatic year - the annual easter banquet. Now, it gives me great personal pleasure to celebrate one of the highlights of the judicial year so soon into my tenure as Lord Chancellor, and I thank you most sincerely for the warmth of the welcome I have received. My wife Alice was always able to be with me at the diplomatic banquets. She is very sorry that she cannot be with me this evening, but she has a long standing family commitment out of London with our daughter.

My predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer spoke at the preceding dinners. I'd like to begin by paying my own tribute to him. For me Charlie will always be, first and foremost, a great friend. But his place in history will be as a fine and respected member of the British Cabinet; especially as a great reforming Lord Chancellor.

After the pleasantries new ministers are greeted by an 'incoming brief' the size of three telephone directories and are then invited, not to say badgered - to read, learn, and inwardly digest every single sentence.  At the very start of my incoming brief was the reminder that the office of the Lord Chancellor is by far and away the oldest and not to say the most distinguished office of state, tracing its lineage back to at least the ninth century.

It is indeed remarkable that despite the many convulsions of our history it has survived those centuries as a working, not titular office. It has only done so through the gradual moulding and adaptation of the role and of the office to meet the circumstances of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Charlie recognised that. So he led two sets of changes with great prescience and selflessness. With the Constitutional Reform Act and the Concordat, Charlie established a much more appropriate relationship between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary with the head of the latter now conferred not on the Lord Chancellor but the Lord Chief Justice. And I must congratulate Nicholas as being the first Lord Chief to be head of the judiciary, and on his manifold abilities in that role.

With the creation of the Ministry of Justice, Charlie has helped create a major department of State which can look forward to a central and elevated position in the affairs of our nation and its citizens for decades to come. Charlie's prescience in all this speaks for itself. His selflessness was this. Charlie believed very strongly in the idea of a comprehensive Ministry of Justice; he pursued the idea to its fulfilment well knowing that he could not be its beneficiary because it would no longer be possible, given the nature of the new responsibilities, for its office holder to sit in the Lords. So there is great poignancy, as a friend of Charlie's that I end up as the first holder of this great office of state to sit in the Commons.

That incoming brief also told me that I had to swear special oaths as Lord Chancellor. When I read the opening sentence of that section of the brief I thought I had already ticked that box. For, unlike any of my Cabinet colleagues, I had sworn not one but two oaths when accepting my Seal of Office before Her Majesty the Queen. But no; there was to be an additional ceremony in public before the Lord Chief Justice in his court, and in front of senior members of the judiciary, where I took not one but three oaths whose gravamen was that I would protect and defend the independence and integrity of the judiciary. And I will.

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During my five years as Foreign Secretary I visited over half the members of the United Nations. I had time to reflect on what was crucial, what was fundamental to the welfare and happiness of their citizens. In the end it was not the availability of the country's natural resources, for they can easily be misused. Nor the vagaries of the climate important though that is; It was instead the strength of its institutions, the quality of its public administration, and above all whether all its citizens, poor or rich, low or high got justice against the powerful, and the state. We are blessed in the United Kingdom by a judiciary whose integrity, independence, professionalism and skill are not in question. But we take such a condition for granted at our peril. Justice is a delicate plant. It has to be nurtured, protected, cared for. Nor do we need to look beyond what we complacently call advanced western democracies, to see where the danger may lie. There are some examples in wider Europe. Or study last week's edition of the Economist about the situation in the United States.

The United States had produced and still does, some of the finest jurists in the world. The development of its common law has greatly informed our own. So I mean nothing disobliging to those jurists nor its fine traditions when I draw attention to that report, entitled Judges behaving badly.  Part of the report would be straight vaudeville were it not so serious.

A whole series of judicial misdemeanours, ranging from the titillating to the outrageous, has emerged over the past year. Take the Florida state judge, John Sloop, who was ousted after complaints about his rude and abusive behaviour. This included an order to strip-search and jail 11 defendants for arriving late in a traffic court after being misdirected. Or the Californian judge, Jose Velasquez, sacked in April for a plethora of misconduct, including extending the sentences of defendants who dared question his rulings.

Then there was the Albany city judge, William Carter in New York, censored for his utterly inexcusable conduct after jumping down from the bench during a trial, shedding his robes and apparently challenging a defendant to a fist-fight.

The report goes on to catalogue problems across the US  - from which of course, the vast bulk of decent, committed, high standing members of the bench suffer the most.

By the last sentence of these oaths I took in front of the Lord Chief Justice I committed to ensuring the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible. So help me God

Unusually for a government which has been charged by its critics with adding over 3000 new criminal offences to the statute book, by some inadvertence, no explicit criminal sanction, like life with hard labour, has been created for any Lord Chancellor who fails in this duty.

But of course I recognise its importance. I have already sent the Chancellor of the Exchequer a highlighted version of the oath, along with a comradely reminder that my office predates his by at least five centuries (his being a mere fourteenth century parvenu) and that it is I not he who signs the warrant of the Constable of the Tower. I will do everything I can to meet the resources section of this oath as all its other terms. At least I am sure that matters will not descend to the level reported in the last paragraph of that Economist report which started state judges in New York are preparing to sue the state for their first pay rise since 1999.

I know that the question of resources is a significant one for our judicial system, and it is a question that runs to the heart of our relationship. I understand the need for certainty over resources. Three year rolling CSR; in place of previous year by year settlements have improved things. But the level of resources for any public service depends on the economy; and the taxable capacity of the people.

All departments and services have to operate within the financial limitations imposed by the Treasury. We continue to have the best funded legal aid in the world, as with the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

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We have additional allocations to pay for up to 8500 prison places; and as the Lord Chief has already mentioned, I intend to lead a debate which I hope can secure a better public understanding of the appropriate balance between non custodial and custodial sentences, and a change in the climate in which the sentencers operate. On the courts let me say this. It is my job to ensure that the resources are adequate. But long experience tells me that different structures are not themselves guarantors of resources.

I do of course appreciate your concerns regarding resources, but I hope that the judiciary will understand that I need time to consider the situation.

Within a single large department any one part, in this case the courts, might be vulnerable to a raid on its budget. However the assumption that the courts are more vulnerable now than they would be if they were part of a smaller, discrete department is not one I share. But I am committed to taking the time to better appreciate the situation and arrive at a mutually agreed undertaking.

My Lord Mayor we all know that democracies can only operate effectively if there is a separation of powers between the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

But in the end we are all servants of the people, because of this there has to be an inter section between those three pillars of the constitution. That between the executive and legislative on the one hand, the judiciary on the other, is the most critical and delicate.  Experience overseas does show how public confidence in justice itself can be damaged if this intersection is not defined with great sensitivity.

I am well aware of the anxieties which were abroad when the Constitutional Reform Act made it possible for the Lord Chancellor to be an elected politician sitting in the Commons. Three sections of that Act seek to allay those anxieties.

The oaths of my office are prescribed. Then there are the specific qualifications for my office. None are laid down for other ministries. But for my office, there are five.

I do not hanker after being a Lord Chancellor of old: I am not and should not be head of the judiciary. Happily that post is not vacant. And if it were it would not be for me. My career has taken a different path and I hope you will not misunderstand me if I say I have no intention or inclination to be a judge real or manqué. With regard to judicial appointments, unless there is a clear breach of process, I will not second guess the recommendations of the Judicial Appointments Commission. Rightly there is now an independent body, working by the Nolan principles. I will play my part in continuing the development of a speedy, efficient, inclusive and fair process of appointment. My predecessors the recent ones at least selected scrupulously on merit. But the independence and indeed the reputation of the judiciary is so essential that there can be no room for even a suggestion of patronage in their selection.

Most important for the first time, the Lord Chief Justice and not the Lord Chancellor is head of the judiciary, and quite rightly so. But for all of these key provisions in the 2005 Act I am very conscious that above and beyond the letter of the law, I am the first Lord Chancellor to sit in the Commons.  How I act, and to what standard, will set a framework for future holders of the office. I hope it will be a framework, a clear precedent, which can endure whatever the party in government, whatever the manifesto commitment, and whether times are easy or hard.

That is a high bar, I know. But I will not have met the spirit of those oaths of office unless I achieve it.

In the fortnight I have been Lord Chancellor it has been a great delight to me to deepen old friendships among the judiciary, and to make new ones. In a sense, that is straightforward; so I believe will the establishing of a productive and necessarily respectful relationship between my department and the whole of the judicial system. But I am well aware that a test of our good faith will come at the sharp end of the separation of powers.

The independence of the judiciary, and its key role in our democracy would be as nothing if the courts were not, without impediment, able to criticise, and, where needed correct acts of commission or omission by the executive. As Home Secretary I was almost everyday the respondent to applications in the Divisional Court; as Foreign Secretary not so often, but with increasing frequency. Judgements could at times be irritating, embarrassing or both. Ministers have the same rights of appeal as others.

But what we must not do is gratuitously to criticise individual judgements, nor show a lack of respect for the institution of the judiciary or its members. After all, it is we in Parliament who ultimately make the law, and therefore have to accept its consequences.

My Lord Mayor, that voluminous incoming brief also told me of my duties here in the City of London. Particularly in having the honour of conveying to the Lord Mayor elect the message of Her Majesty's approval of the choice of the citizens of London. Your office is slightly less old than mine by a few of hundred years; but it shares with mine a constant adaptation; building on its traditions, and binding old with new. And just as I have broken with centuries of tradition by sitting in the lower chamber, you too have broken new ground. I cannot believe that there is another Lord Mayor in history who has taken part in the Peking to Paris rally and certainly not in a pink rolls-royce.

It has been quite the gathering of firsts and lasts. I am the oldest and the newest. But there is one tradition that must remains perennial. The toast to our generous hosts: may I ask you to rise and join me in proposing the good health of the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress.

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