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UK launches new Ministry of Justice as judges balk

[JURIST] The new UK Ministry of Justice [official website] began operations Wednesday, as a controversial split of the traditional Home Office [official website] that is setting the British government against the judiciary went into effect. Lord Falconer of Thoroton [official profile], serving as the first Secretary of State for Justice, said [press release] that the new focus of the Justice Ministry "provides the opportunity for the whole justice system to work together better than ever before." Outgoing [Guardian report] Home Secretary John Reid shared similar sentiments [press release] from his institutional perspective, saying that the changes "have refocused the Home Office on the issues that matter most to the public."

Critics, however, have expressed concerns over the likely effectiveness of the split, and even doubt its constitutional advisability. Late last month the former Lord Chief Justice of English and Wales Lord Woolf said that shifting the traditional position of Lord Chancellor into the Ministry of Justice represented a major constitutional change [JURIST report] that should be undertaken only after serious study and not rushed through, warning that the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor in the expanded Ministry might water down his traditionally close relationship with judges. Top judges have been particularly wary of the possibility that government concerns over sentencing practices [JURIST report] might put judges under political pressure [Phillips letter, PDF]; Lord Justice Thomas, who has led negotiations with the government on behalf of the judges, has said that "difficult questions of principle" relating to the merged responsibilities of the new ministry remain to be settled.

In a statement [text] issued Wednesday, current Chief Justice Lord Phillips reiterated the judges concerns:

The judiciary consider that the creation of a new Ministry of Justice raises important issues of principle; these have been communicated repeatedly to the Lord Chancellor since January 2007 and are summarised in the judicial position paper of 29 March 2007. A working group composed of senior judges and senior Government officials has been meeting since 21 March 2007 to discuss the issues with the aim of putting in place constitutional safeguards to protect the independence of the judiciary and the proper administration of justice...

We have not yet reached agreement on a way forward. We will continue with our discussions with the Government in our attempt to resolve the important issues of principle that remain.

I have convened a special meeting of the Judges' Council to discuss these issues on 15 May 2007 with representatives of all levels of the judiciary. I will also be giving evidence on this subject to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons on 22 May 2007 when I shall explain the judiciary's position, and the stage we have reached in our discussions with the Government.
The plan [HO press release] to create the new justice ministry was developed [JURIST report] earlier this year and announced [transcript] in late March by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It called for a Ministry of Justice - a successor body to the Department of Constitutional Affairs and the National Offender Management Service [official websites] - to be responsible for the judiciary and for prisons, probation and the prevention of criminal recidivism. The jurisdiction of a reduced Home Office would be largely confined to terrorism, security and immigration. BBC News has more.

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