Extra-judicial comments by Judges: Lord Neuberger’s Seven Principles

In a speech made to law students at Birmingham University on 2 March 2012, Lord Neuberger of Abbottsbury, Master of the Rolls, UK highlighted the importance of judicial comments outside their judicial role in courts. He said that:
 development of judicial comment on a wide range of legal and constitutional issues, through speeches, lectures and articles, carries with it more benefits than drawbacks, but it calls for much care, circumspection, rationing, and even self-denial, when it comes to considering whether to speak, what to say and how to say it. It also calls for an understanding by all concerned of the proper boundaries within which comment can properly be made.

Lord Neuberger therefore proposed these principles for statements of judges in fora outside the judiciary:

  1. First, it seems to me only proper that judges, with their wisdom and experience, should be free to comment extra-judicially on a wide range of issues. In doing so they play an educative role. In areas such as constitutional principles, the role and independence of the judiciary, the functioning of the legal system, and access to justice, and even important issues of law, this role cannot be underestimated.
  2. Secondly, any comment should be made following careful consideration of the impact which it might have on both aspects of judicial independence.
  3. Thirdly, a judge should consider the effect on the judiciary generally of any view expressed. The judiciary’s claim to institutional independence depends in part on its institutional reputation and standing. An individual judge may regard a particular statement as justified and be prepared to take any consequent criticism, but the effect on the judiciary generally may render it inappropriate to make the statement. It may be inevitable that judges may disagree on a policy or constitutional issue when sitting in court, and it may occasionally be inevitable out of court (e.g. when appearing before a Parliamentary committee), However, it would, I suggest, be unfortunate if it frequently occurred voluntarily. If such a disagreement does arise, it should be argued in an entirely seemly way.
  4. Fourthly and more specifically, a judge should think carefully about how any statement about politically controversial issues, or matters of public policy, might affect, or be affected by, the separation of powers, and comity between the three branches of the State. May it be said, for instanced, that the statement trespasses into forbidden territory, and, if so, can it be justified on the basis that it falls within the appropriate ambit of judicial speaking out? And, if it can, is it expressed in terms suitable for a judge entering the arena in a non-judicial capacity? The same considerations arise when members of the executive or legislature seek comments from serving Judges. Comity and the separation of powers may well call for reticence.
  5. Fifthly, judges should think carefully of their audience, and the impact their comments might have upon it, and upon any wider audience, including the media. Might that impact, or potential impact, call into question their independence, their ability to carry out their fundamental role of doing justice according to law? Could it call into question judicial independence? In particular, if a judge is proposing to discuss a point which may subsequently come to court, care should normally be taken to make it clear that the judicial mind is not closed.
  6. Sixthly, judges should not seek publicity for its own sake, or use their ‘office as a springboard for causes (however worthy).
  7. Seventhly, there are rather a lot of judicial speeches being made at the moment. I wonder whether we are not devaluing the coinage, or letting the judicial mask slip. In the light of the fact that I may be characterised as a serial offender, perhaps the less I say about that point, the better.

This issue has come to light recently in India as well. It remains to be seen whether these principles are observed in practice as the link between judicial discipline and judicial independence has become quite tenuous.

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