Mansion House speech by the Lord Chief Justice

Lord Burnett of MaldonLord Chief JusticeSpeeches

The Rt Hon the Lord Burnett of Maldon

Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales

Dinner to Her Majesty’s Judges

Mansion House

6 July 2022

My Lord Mayor, Lord Chancellor, distinguished representatives of the City of London, fellow judges, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a real pleasure to be here this evening for the first full blown judges’ dinner since 2019. In 2020 your predecessors, Sir William Russell and Sir Robert Buckland and I stood in this magnificent room at lecterns so far apart that we were protected not only from infecting each other with COVID but needed telescopes to see each other. The room was otherwise empty save for those involved in recording and transmitting what we had to say. Last year we managed a halfway house but now we are able to enjoy once more the magnificent hospitality of the City of London for which, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Judges, I thank you my Lord Mayor.

This evening provides an opportunity to mark the importance of the rule of law in the affairs of our great nation, the contribution that an independent judiciary makes to the rule of law and the unparalleled strength of English law as a driver of prosperity. It also enables me to thank not only the judges here, but all the judges in the courts and tribunals, and all the staff, for the quite remarkable way in which all have continued to administer justice over another year clouded by COVID.

It has been an extraordinary three years since we were all together in 2019. Life seems to have become increasingly febrile and commentary on aspects of the judiciary have not been immune. I have once or twice asked senior colleagues whether the deathly prose of the job descriptions which set out our responsibilities comes close to capturing what we spend most of our time doing and the problems that we must field. Through these extraordinary times all judges will continue to discharge their responsibilities without fear or favour, whatever is thrown our way: critical commentary, whatever its source, will not deter us from continuing to do so.

My Lord Mayor, in April this year Royal Assent was given to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022. It raised the judicial retirement age to 75.

More importantly for the long-term health of the judiciary of the whole United Kingdom, this Act saw the legislative reversal of the damaging changes to the judicial pension arrangements first announced in 2012. I had to make an early decision even before formally taking office whether to press government for an unregistered scheme. It was the first thing I discussed with Sir David Lidington, then Lord Chancellor. There were many who counselled against doing so because it was thought impossible to achieve. But I could not look the judges in the eye if I did not at least try.

And so, over many months, successive Lord Chancellors were persuaded, as in time were the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister of the day, all of whose political support was vital.  The details took a great deal of time and work. Many judges, led by Sir Geoffrey Vos, gave their time but I wish also to pay tribute publicly to the officials in the Ministry of Justice – I will not embarrass anyone by naming them – without whose formidable industry and intellectual rigour none of this would have happened.

And so, one of the greatest impediments to recruiting salaried judges has been removed. But we need to do more. The Judicial Appointments Commission continues to struggle to fill the vacancies for salaried roles. The District Bench is operating well below complement and the last two Circuit Judge competitions have failed to deliver all the judges for the Crown Court needed to ease the outstanding case load.

One reason, which I hear from judges all over the country, is that as salaried judicial office has become more onerous, fee-paid office, sometimes combining a number of fee-paid offices, has become more attractive. There is truth in that observation. It is the salaried judges who do the more difficult work, the urgent work and, as we all know, additional out-of-court work.

This now needs to be addressed.  Salaried judges and fee-paid judges are different. A salaried judge is a judge for all purposes and subject to strict constraints on any other activity.  Maintaining a strong cadre of judges who make this career commitment enhances the independence of the judiciary as a whole. Fee-paid judges, by contrast, are something else first and part-time judges second.

There is a long tradition of using fee-paid judges in this country to provide flexibility to help manage variable workloads. It provides an opportunity for lawyers to see whether they like judging and enables them to demonstrate judicial skills before seeking salaried office. Almost all of the judges in this room have trodden this path. The pressure of business following the pandemic coupled with a shortage of judges in some jurisdictions has made us more reliant on fee-paid judges, particularly recorders and deputy district judges. But we will need to restore the balance when we can.

The broad aim will be to have a significant difference between the minimum time a salaried part-time judge can sit and the maximum a fee-paid judge can sit. We will also look at terms and conditions to ensure that they do not positively benefit fee-paid judges at the expense of salaried judges.

That will be part of a wider look at terms and conditions to iron out anomalies that exist across the system not only between the judiciary in the courts and the judiciary in the tribunals, but within each.

We also need to go further in bringing the courts and tribunals closer together in “One Judiciary” to make better use of resources and to demonstrate that judges, wherever they sit, are part of a single judicial family. This is unfinished business started by the tribunal reforms in 2007. We plan to increase opportunities for cross deployment, widen judicial skills and support the exchange of experience between jurisdictions. That will, in turn, support efforts to ensure that all judges feel welcome and respected and can thrive in the judiciary irrespective of their personal or professional background.

Underpinning these next steps towards One Judiciary will be work towards the creation of a unified leadership structure bringing the courts and tribunals together in England and Wales. There will be close and careful work with our judicial colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland to take account of the remaining United Kingdom tribunals and further devolution of others.

Some of these changes will require legislation. They will not happen overnight. But they are all aspects of the continued modernisation of the judiciary to which I, the Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of Tribunals are committed.

My Lord Mayor, one of the great advantages of my position is that few pictures of me are published save in ceremonial robes and so I enjoy relative anonymity. That has advantages as nobody recognises me at the weekends going in and out of shops.

I expect the Lord Chancellor is mobbed in Esher High Street.

But lack of recognition can cause problems. A meeting with a visiting chief justice in my conference room got off to a shaky start recently when I entered, put my hand out, greeted my visitor by name and was met with, “Yes, but who are you?”.

I was underdressed, you see.

That is not something that can be said of any of us this evening.  Nor indeed that, in these surrounds and with your generous and gracious hospitality, there is any lack of recognition for our judges and what we do.

My thanks once again to the Corporation of the City of London and to you, my Lord Mayor, for this evening and for all you do to support Her Majesty’s Judges.