The Guardian (London) - Final Edition


March 9, 2004


Angry lords derail legal reform bill: Defeat may trigger constitutional crisis


BYLINE: Michael White and Sarah Hall


SECTION: Guardian Home Pages, Pg. 1


LENGTH: 911 words



 The government's plans to create an independent supreme court and abolish the ancient office of lord chancellor were derailed last night after being savaged for seven hours as hasty and ill-judged by a succession of angry law lords and peers of all parties.

 Despite concessions by the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, and an appeal by the government's most vocal critic, the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, not to block the reform indefinitely, the upper house voted by 216 to 183 to send the bill to a special select committee instead of the usual committee process.

 The vote raises the prospect of a "peers v people" constitutional clash between the House of Lords and the Commons which both sides will seek to exploit in the run-up to the next election.

 Hunting and reform of the Lords itself will also feature as ministers deploy the Parliament Acts to bend the upper house to its will and Michael Howard denounces "Tony's cronies" for threatening the independence of both the judiciary and the second chamber with half-baked schemes for modernisation.

 In a statement issued later, Baroness Amos, leader of the Lords, said: "We have witnessed an act of political opportunism by Conservative peers.

 "Make no mistake, tonight's events have nothing to do with constitutional principle - and everything to do with political opportunism."

 But Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, said: "Parliament has spoken. The government must now listen."

 Early in the debate ministers and officials breathed sighs of relief as Lord Woolf explained that he would not back his old colleague, the retired law lord, Lord Lloyd, in referring the bill to a select committee, against the advice of several other legal grandees and Lord Goodhart, the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

 Loyalists said the move amounted to a "wrecking amendment" which could kill the bill, paralyse judicial reform or provoke the long-feared clash between the two chambers. But their hopes were dashed as the bitter exchanges continued until close to midnight.

 Though Downing Street had taken a more emollient line than Peter Hain, the leader of the Commons had threatened to reintroduce a stalled bill in the Commons and deploy the Parliament Acts if necessary to get the changes enacted before the likely 2005 election.

 Amid a string of hostile speeches, Lord Woolf warned that judges would not be more independent as a result of the changes.

 But he also said the current position on legal appointments is unsustainable and must quickly be resolved.

 Last night's tension was heightened by persistent delays in publication of the government's bill to get rid of the last 92 hereditary peers before fulfilling its promise to let them stay on until the final stages of Lords reform - on which there is no consensus on having at least some elected peers.

 Last night Lord Falconer insisted that seven months of consultation on the supreme court bill was enough and that peers would still get further chances to amend the bill - provided they do not block it.

 He also unveiled minor concessions, including a pledge to allow the new judicial appointments commission to define "merit" when picking new judges.

 Urging peers to act constructively in the interests of "generations to come", he also warned "that it should be considered that the elected chamber is the foundation of our parliamentary democracy. To prevent the Commons even looking at the bill is to break with that approach."

 Lord Woolf made plain that his criticisms - first voiced last week in his Squire Centenary Lecture at Cambridge University - still stood, but also that he had "reservations" about forcing the government to backtrack or face more than three months of scrutiny on the bill before peers pass it.

 With a reference to last June's cabinet reshuffle, which catapulted Lord Falconer into Lord Irvine's old job, Lord Woolf said: "I and my (legal) colleagues have reservations about whether it is practical to go back to where we were before June 12, whether that is regrettable or not."

 The judiciary has negotiated a concordat with Lord Falconer's Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) to protect its independence. Some peers fear creation of a weakened system in which DCA secretaries of state will lack the prestige of a lord chancellor to stand up to pressure on appointments.

 But Lord Woolf urged the house, divided on all sides on the issue, to accept a "conventional" approach to amending the bill, on which the Tory leadership believes it has ministers on the run. "Delay is something that could be accommodated and would not affect the independence of the judiciary," he said.

 Hostile peers insisted that there was no need for the government to rush what Lord Bledisloe, one of many eminent lawyers attacking the bill, called "an ill-thought-out" measure.

 But Lord Woolf said: "The traditional position is wholly unsatisfactory for the administration of justice. While I can see and would accept that a delay period of about three months might be manageable, if we should be left with the present position in place, I would say that is an unsatisfactory situation."

 During last night's debate Lord Lloyd said: "Great changes in the constitution, especially when they concern the administration of justice, should be made by consensus and not by government diktat."

 Debate, page 11

 Martin Kettle, page 24


LOAD-DATE: March 9, 2004




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