Britain’s most senior judge will be confirmed by Downing Street from a shortlist of three later in July
Downing Street will confirm the appointment of the United Kingdom’s most senior judge this month, resolving a behind-the-bench contest that could result in the first ever female president of the supreme court.
Lady Justice Hale, an enthusiastic promoter of greater diversity in the judiciary, is one of three senior judges on the shortlist. The name of the chosen candidate will be passed to Buckingham Palace for approval before being announced.
The other two judges vying to become president are Lord Mance, a highly regarded supreme court justice who is an expert in commercial law, and the master of the rolls, Lord Neuberger – widely tipped to be the eventual winner.
Hale is the only woman among 12 justices on the supreme court. There are rumours in legal circles of a “Stop Brenda” campaign, based on fears that she is perceived as being too liberal and outspoken.
From an academic background, her route into the judiciary has been less conventional. Hale lectured in law at Manchester University for more than 20 years and also practised in the north as a barrister specialising in family and welfare law.
She became a high court judge in 1994 and has expressed shock that so many senior lawyers are members of the Garrick club, which only admits men. Last year she told the Guardian she longs for female company on the supreme court. “It would nice for there to be a critical mass of three or four more women because then it’s not something that anybody is going to comment on,” she observed.
Mance, 69, also a supporter of greater diversity on the bench, is an expert on banking and human rights; he worked on a commission enforcing laws in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
A skilled linguist, he joined a Hamburg law firm for a time and then rose through the commercial bar. His wife is Dame Mary Arden, an appeal court judge. They are the only couple to have served on the appeal court at the same time.
Neuberger, 64, has been master of the rolls – head of the civil judiciary in England and Wales – since 2009. Also seen as a liberal, his rise up the judicial ladder has been swift.
He has served on commissions investigating how to widen access to the legal bar and other professions. In 2009, when the supreme court was created, he criticised its establishment and has since complained that removing the highest court in the land from the House of Lords reduced the legitimate “avenues by which the judiciary could enter into public debate”.
Judges should consequently “be very cautious about publicly discussing the controversies of the day when speaking extra-judicially”, he said earlier this year – a comment interpreted as a call for judges to limit their public pronouncements. Neuberger produced a report on privacy last year that warned that superinjunctions should only be used in “very limited circumstances” and effectively curbed judicial enthusiasm for the orders.
Among the criteria that candidates must meet “to an exceptional degree” are: “knowledge and experience of the law”; “intellectual ability”, “clarity of thought” and an “ability to work under pressure”. They must also demonstrate “social awareness and understanding of the contemporary world”.
The vacancy is due to the imminent retirement of Lord Justice Phillips, 74, the first president of the supreme court. He is standing down at the end of September and will take on senior judicial roles in Qatar and Hong Kong after his retirement. Phillips has previously served both as lord chief justice of England and Wales and as master of the rolls.
The basic salary of a supreme court justice is £206,857. The president earns slightly more: £214,165. The selection commission for the new president consists of Phillips, his deputy, Lord Hope, and representatives of the judicial appointments boards of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and Wales.
The nominee can be vetoed by Ken Clarke, who is lord chancellor and justice secretary. Under changes proposed in the crime and courts bill, the lord chancellor will in future sit on the appointments panel.
That change has come under fierce attack from Lady Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and legal reformer who is sister-in-law of Lord Neuberger. She has described the proposal as a “disgrace” which risks politicising the process.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “The lord chancellor … will give this veto up if he becomes part of the selection panel. Senior members of the judiciary will also be represented on the panel and there will be an independent chair.
“The government is committed to upholding the independence of the judiciary and the selection decision for these two vital appointments will continue to be based solely on merit.”