THE LORD CHANCELLOR

A lively debate is taking place over the appointment of successive Lord Chancellors and the need, or wisdom, of having an incumbent who is legally qualified.  This lively debate reflects the recent decision of the Prime Minister, whoever that might be at any given time, to appoint laypersons to the office, and we have been treated in equal measure to Chris Grayling, Oiky Gove, Liz Truss, or is it Lynne Truss, I can never tell them apart, and finally to the present incumbent David Lidington, otherwise known as David Who.  They come and go with monotonous regularity, poor players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.

The historians amongst you will remember Thomas à Becket, back in 1172, who as the Archbishop of Canterbury was dispatched to his Maker with those oft quoted words uttered by King Henry: “Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  Four knights did, and precious little thanks did they get for their grisly work.

But I digress.  Before taking holy orders, Becket also served as Lord Chancellor. He had no legal qualifications, indeed in 1170 legal qualifications were as rare as hens teeth, far more important was a well turned ankle and a winning smile, both of which Becket had in abundance, so he got the job.  Surprisingly, he made quite a fist of it, introducing the Court of Chancery modestly named after him, and his shoe size became the universally accepted measurement of one foot.

He also erected  a barrier, or bar, between him and the great unwashed, to keep them at arms’ length when the court was sitting, to reduce the threat of a bunch of fives from disgruntled litigants as well as keeping the overpowering smell of body odour to manageable proportions. Again for the historians amongst you, litigants who addressed the Lord Chancellor from the bar became known as barristers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to the plot.  Do we need a Lord Chancellor who is legally qualified, or who has at least some legal experience and knowledge?  The clue is in the text of section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, my favourite bedside reading. It is as instructive for what it doesn’t say as for what it does, and make of it what you will:

“A person may not be recommended for appointment as Lord Chancellor unless he appears to the Prime Minister to be qualified by experience.

The Prime Minister may take into account any of these—

(a) experience as a Minister of the Crown;

(b) experience as a member of either House of Parliament;

(c) experience as a qualifying practitioner;

(d) experience as a teacher of law in a university;

(e) other experience that the Prime Minister considers relevant.”

In other words, anything goes, so legal qualifications are an irrelevance.  On one view, nothing has changed since Thomas à Becket, so if it works, don’t fix it.  In some cases it didn’t work, the most obvious being the unfortunate Liz or Lynne Truss, who was appointed solely on the strength of a well turned ankle and little else.  The fact that she was a woman helped, but not enough to save her from the cull.

Speaking entirely for the thousands of barristers washing around the courts, it is the perception as much as the qualifications of the incumbent, or not as the case may be, where the rule of law now inserts itself into every corner of our lives, and the Lord Chancellor needs the authority and the gravitas of his office as never before.  Downgrading the qualifications downgrades the institution at the very time when respect for the law is at its lowest.

David Osborne is the author of three humorous books on the Law.  His latest, entitled Order in Court, is now available on Amazon and in all reputable bookstores.

UNFIT FOR PURPOSE?

I remember many years ago, a defence barrister colleague of mine rose to his feet to deliver his final speech to the jury after the midday adjournment. “Members of the Jury,” he began unsteadily, “we’ve reached that stage in the trial when I address you on behalf of the Defendant, the learned judge will then direct you on the law, and you will then reach your verdict.  However, I am far too pissed to give a damn, the learned judge is notoriously ignorant of the law, and you lot look far too stupid to reach anything.”  He was led quietly away. Whilst he may well have been right on all counts, it wasn’t politically correct.

Which brings me effortlessly on to Liz Truss.  In case you  missed the clean up of the Augean Stables, she has replaced Brutus Gove as Secretary of State for Justice, and with it goes the appointment of Lord Chancellor (surely Lady?).  Some reservations have already been expressed about her suitability to fill both appointments.  Those of the backwoodsman mentality have expressed reservations about her sex, by which I assume they are referring to her gender.  The argument goes that she cannot be expected to stand up to crusty geriatric judges, almost all of whom to a man are men.

Pausing there, and I may need your help, am I allowed to refer to men and women as men and women, or is this sexual discrimination?  What happens if some or all of the men and women are actually transgender?  One suggestion I read recently is that they are referred to collectively as ‘zie’ instead of he or she. I could be wrong, but I think this was a serious suggestion, and not tongue in cheek.  Hang on, can I say ‘tongue in cheek’?  Doesn’t this have sexual innuendos? And does this apply to the fragrant Liz, and if so, how so? But at the risk of blundering on, can I describe our Liz as ‘fragrant’?  Doesn’t this typecast her as a woman, or can transgenders be ‘fragrant’ as well?

But there’s more: can I refer to ‘our Liz’ as ‘our Liz’, or is this patronising, the more so coming from a man (me)?  More to the point, am I a man, or am I also transgender?  Enough I say, lest I get dragged to the stocks.

Back to Liz, fragrant or otherwise, there are others who complain that she has no legal training or experience, and she hasn’t.  Those who wish to volunteer should form an orderly queue!  OMG, can I say that?

She is not exactly breaking new ground.  Her two immediate predecessors had no legal training or experience either.  Grayling wasn’t in post long enough to make any sort of an impression, even on himself, or should that be ‘zieself? But Brutus Gove, for all his recent transgressions, was making a fist of it before events overtook him.  He muttered darkly about abolishing the Human Rights Act and having our own Bill of Rights, hugely exciting, but of more relevance was his stated intention of reforming the prison service.  Ms. Truss has promised to continue these reforms, I say ‘continue’ advisedly as no serious reforms have yet to be implemented, but be warned, time is against her.  Our prisons remain seriously overcrowded and, according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons: “Far too many of our prisons have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”

As I have said before, treat human beings like animals and they’ll behave like animals.  It’s not good enough to lock them up and throw away the key.  Shorter sentences, education and rehabilitation should be the norm in a civilised society, not the exception.

As for the fragrant Liz, I am all in favour of women in the workplace.  It used to be called the kitchen, but that is positively antediluvian, and there’s a new life, a new dawn, and it’s time to move on. Hang on a minute: isn’t that plagiarism?  Apologies to Nina Simone, or should that be Michelle Obama, or Donald Trump’s present squeeze?  Sadly, I’ve forgotten her name, but whilst English is clearly not her language of first choice, she is very easy on the eye.  Oops, there I go again!

David Osborne is the author of three humorous books on the Law.  His latest entitled Order in Court is now available in all reputable bookstores and on Amazon.

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