In the Media

'The judges are delighted – they're definitely up for it'

PUBLISHED March 29, 2006

Next Monday the Judicial Office will take over the running of the judiciary. It?s a big change 

DEBORA MATTHEWS knows all about handling judges and ministers. She did the job of both ? when acting as ?bag carrier? or principal private secretary to Lord (Derry) Irvine of Lairg, then Lord Chancellor and head of the judiciary. And they don?t come more demanding than that. So Matthews should be well equipped for the task of heading the judicial ?ministry? when it goes live on April 3.

The change is a constitutional milestone. Judges, under the legal reforms announced by Tony Blair when he swept Derry Irvine from office, are taking over responsibility from the Lord Chancellor for their work, budget, deployment, conduct and discipline and ?well-being?. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, finally becomes the official head of the judiciary and Matthews heads the new Judicial Office with a staff of 130 officials and a budget of ?14 million.

For the first time there will be clear water between judges and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Matthews, whose ?ministry? is based at the Royal Courts of Justice, is in effect Sir Humphrey to the senior judiciary ? with some key differences: ?For a start, they?ve all got day jobs (unlike ministers),? she says. ?They?ve got the Latin.? It means that the day starts very early in the morning.

Nor are judges nurtured in the culture of Whitehall, in management, committees and leadership. And perhaps most different of all for a career civil servant such as Matthews, they don?t hold any truck with jargon. ?Management-speak is anathema to them. All the usual phrases ? stakeholder, for instance ? we have to try hard to avoid. It has been quite difficult from that point of view,? she says. ?What judges do best is being judges ? the administration and management is at the side of things ? it?s a very different culture.?

As well as the Judicial Office, she oversees a Judicial Communications Office to handle media relations ? the first of its kind for judges ? and the existing Judicial Studies Board that handles judges? training. There will also be a judicial website and a judicial intranet ? commonplace in Whitehall, but for judges still new ground.

Mike Wicksteed, head of judicial communications, has recruited a press team that will help judges to put out speeches, responses to consultation papers, field press inquires and put out statements. The whole idea of professional communications has provoked scepticism among some judges, he admits. ?Some of them are comfortable with it, others less so. But that?s to be expected. We are going to have to justify our existence, prove we can add something.?

In essence they are building a judicial community. The directorate touches on all 40,000 judicial office-holders, Wicksteed says, including magistrates. The judges? own intranet will provide them with information they need ? policy announcements, events, newspaper articles. The public website will explain the work of the judiciary ? complete with an interactive sentencing exercise. Peter Farr, chief public information officer, says: ?There?s a definite gap in the market. Parliament?s website has lots of statistics and material on the parliamentary process but there?s nothing really for judges at all.?

Generally, though, there is enthusiasm to make the judiciary more accessible and understood to a wider public. ?Judges,? Farr says, ?are generally becoming more accessible ? and we are part of that process.?

Behind the scenes Matthews has a key role in developing the support teams for the senior judges and the ?channels of communication?. Not that long ago judges barely had secretaries. There will also be teams in the Judicial Office to deal with judicial complaints, human resources and welfare.

The role has meant training for the judges. ?They?re delighted ? they are definitely up for it.? The role has been a ?fair time coming?, she points out. ?Before Lord Phillips, both Lord Woolf and before him Lord Bingham (of Cornhill) took on much more of this role than hitherto, so it?s not such a big step change at the top. Now we?re dealing with the next layer down.?

Like any Whitehall empire, the top judges have a judicial executive board ? and this has been running in shadow form, ready for A-day, as they call it. The existing Judges? Council ? the senior judges ? will still have a role as the sounding board for judicial views.

The biggest challenge, Matthews says, is to ensure a ?seamless transition?; the public in the courts should not notice a thing when the judicial directorate goes live. But in the long-term there will be a visible impact.

For a start, they hope for an end to the running battle between ministers and the judiciary. ?Liaison with the Home Office and other departments will be closer ? we hope that there won?t be any surprises by way of policy announcements,? Farr says. And constitutionally, the independence of the judiciary should be more firmly entrenched. Matthews says: ?Judges will be a stronger arm of the constitution, with a stronger sense of the judicial family.? The real trick, she adds, is to ?ensure that we create a more coherent integrated approach to issues . . . that?s not been brought together before in such a clear, single focus for a new, developing and modern judiciary.?

Public confidence should also increase through greater transparency and knowledge about what judges do. ?It will be some time before the full impact is felt. But we?ll all have been here from the outset ? and that?s the real buzz, that we are at the start of something quite historic.?