This post has been contributed by Charlotte Crilly, Teaching Fellow for the Undergraduate Laws Programme.
Two of England’s most senior judges have recently spoken up to defend the independence of the judiciary, following criticisms that were made of judges in the press following the ‘Brexit case’ in the High Court (R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union  EWHC 2768 (Admin)).
The High Court had ruled against the government, holding that it was for the UK parliament, not the government, to decide to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and start the process of the UK leaving the European Union. The High Court’s decision was not well received by the press. One newspaper referred to the three judges in the case as ‘enemies of the people’ and the judges faced extensive criticism in much of the press for the decision they had made.
This caused a considerable amount of controversy over the role of the judiciary and judicial independence. Under section 3(1) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor has a statutory duty to ‘uphold the continued independence of the judiciary’. Some commentators said that, in this case, the Lord Chancellor was too slow to intervene in the situation to defend the judiciary and its independence, and that when she did, it was ‘too little, too late’. The Bar Council issued a statement regretting that the Lord Chancellor had not condemned attacks on the judiciary and noting that ‘a strong independent judiciary is essential to a functioning democracy and to upholding the rule of law’ (see http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media-centre/news-and-press-releases/2016/november/bar-council-calls-on-lord-chancellor-to-condemn-attacks-on-judiciary/).
The Brexit case was appealed to the Supreme Court (R(Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union)  UKSC 5). Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the Lord Chancellor issued a press release very soon afterwards supporting the judiciary, saying that ‘our independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and is vital to our constitution and our freedoms’ (see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lord-chancellor-response-to-supreme-court-judgment).
In a radio interview, the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, said that press criticism of the judiciary following the High Court’s decision risked undermining the rule of law. Although he recognised that politicians had been swift to defend the judiciary following the Supreme Court judgment, he considered that after the High Court hearing, politicians could have defended the judiciary and the rule of law more quickly and more clearly.
Lord Neuberger noted that undermining the judiciary undermined the rule of law as judges were ‘the ultimate guardians’ of it. He stressed the importance of the rule of law, saying that ‘the rule of law together with democracy is one of the two pillars on which our society is based. And therefore if, without good reason, the media or anyone else undermines the judiciary that risks undermining our society’.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, has also criticised the Lord Chancellor for her failure to defend the judiciary following the Brexit case. The Lord Chief Justice said that ‘I don’t think it is understood either how absolutely essential it is that we [the judges] are protected because we have to act as our oath requires us without fear or favour.’ He added that the Lord Chancellor had a duty to defend the judges and that she had ‘taken a position that is constitutionally, absolutely wrong.’
Judges will not usually speak out in public to reply to criticism against them, and no serving judges did so immediately following the attacks on them in the press. Lord Neuberger is due to retire in September, and Lord Thomas is also due to step down in the autumn, so this perhaps means they now feel able to voice their views.
For more information, please see the news reports on the BBC News website (at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38986228) and the Guardian (at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/22/lord-chief-justice-castigates-liz-truss-for-failing-to-defend-judges).
If you’re interested in reading the original judgments in the High Court and the Supreme Court, you can find these on the BAILLI website, and there is a summary of the Supreme Court decision on the Supreme Court website (at https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2016-0196.html)