I have no reason to believe that Lord Neuberger is anything other than a thoroughly professional and well respected Supreme Court judge. His many attractors describe him as a man with a keen intellect and a willingness to listen to reasoned argument even if he doesn’t follow it.
That said, it could be with a eye to his imminent retirement that he chose to enter the political domain and speak out against two of the four estates of our democracy, namely the Government and the Press. He referred in particular to the Supreme Court’s ruling against the government in the Brexit appeal, and the Media criticism that followed it. I listened to some of the debate, dominated as it was by Lord Sumption’s colourful ties, but I was appalled to hear Lord ‘Don’t’ Pannick describe the Referendum as an irrelevance. A crass comment and insulting to the many millions who voted and who thought they were making a difference. At the end of the day, the Court failed to understand that the Referendum was all about the will of the people and not about Parliament.
Methinks this is a man who doth protest too much. The Media are perfectly at liberty to criticise judges at all levels if they think they’ve got it wrong, and long may they do so. This does not equate to an attack on the independence of the judiciary, but if Lord Neuberger feels that his detractors should remain silent, he is overly sensitive. He was also overly sensitive in criticising Lynn or Liz Truss, the Lady Chancellor, who knows absolutely nothing about the job, for failing to slap down these detractors. It may be that the tabloid which branded the three High Court Judges as “enemies of the people” went too far, but if you want to be a judge, you have got to learn to roll with the punches. To suggest therefore that media criticism of the High Court judges after they ruled last year that parliament not the government should trigger the process of leaving the EU “was undermining the rule of law” was wide of the mark and probably better not said.
He also went on to say: “They [politicians] could have been quicker and clearer. But we all learn by experience, whether politicians or judges. It’s easy to be critical after the event.”
Lord Neuberger continued: “If, without good reason, the media or anyone else undermines the judiciary, that risks undermining our society. The press and the media generally have a positive duty to keep an eye on things. But I think with that power comes the degree of responsibility.” Amen to that. Judges wield considerable power, and when they get it wrong, as they do from time to time, who is going to correct them? It’s a self-perpetuating oligarchy, as judges for the most part don’t like admitting their mistakes.
Finally, to try and bring this unseemly debate to a close, his lordship made one telling and unintended remark, and I paraphrase: “With power comes responsibility.” That responsibility is not confined to the Media or the Press, or Politicians, but extends to the judiciary.
It is not undermining the independence of the judiciary to hold it to account, and if, after mature reflection, it is plain for all to see they’ve got it wrong, it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to put it right.