Monday, September 30, 2013


It may not prove unlawful, but the challenge to the annual service in Westminster Abbey raises important concerns
Joshua Rozenberg Thursday 26 September 2013
Westminster Abbey Host Annual Service For Judges
The service dates back to the middle ages, when judges prayed for guidance at the start of the legal term Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The challenge to the judges' annual service in Westminster Abbey by two self-styled secularists raises important issues. As my colleague Owen Bowcott disclosed here, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and a former civil servant at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wrote this week to the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, suggesting that the service should be discontinued.
Failing that, they said very politely, there might be a legal challenge based on apparent bias. In cases that involve religious bodies or beliefs, they argue, a judge who has attended the abbey service "may appear to have prejudged the religious issue by publicly appearing to support particular beliefs which may be at odds with the religious belief, or lack of it, of the criminal defendant, civil party or witness".
I have never been invited to the service or the lunchtime reception that follows it, which is known as the lord chancellor's breakfast. But for many years I used to stand in the street, next to a photographer, identifying individual judges as they walked in procession from Westminster Abbey to the Houses of Parliament. Although several of the details have changed in recent years, it remains the only opportunity to get pictures of the judges and lawyers wearing wigs and gowns of the type that you never see in a working court.
As the judges' website explains, the service dates back to the middle ages, when judges prayed for guidance at the start of the legal term. Conducted by the Dean of Westminster, it includes prayers, hymns, psalms and anthems.
But what significance, if any, is there in the attendance of an individual judge? There always used to be a handful of Roman Catholic judges who would go instead to a "red mass" at Westminster Cathedral while the abbey service was taking place, arriving in time for the breakfast. But many of the judges who will be attending the abbey service next week are not Anglicans or even Christians. In recent years, they were led by Jewish chief justices, including Lord Taylor of Gosforth and Lord Woolf.
Attendance at a religious service – whether a wedding, a funeral, a memorial service or a civic service – does not require or even imply adherence to the faith in which that service is conducted. You simply turn up appropriately dressed, sit down or stand up along with everyone else, and make a point of not joining in the prayers.
Of course, the position may be a little different if a judge professes adherence to a particular religion. Even then, judges should be perfectly able to put their personal views to one side. In 2010, for example, Lord Justice Laws dismissed an application supported by Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of a marriage guidance counsellor who had been sacked for refusing to give psycho-sexual therapy to same-sex couples. Yet nobody would regard Laws as anti-Christian and he is married to a distinguished theologian. I cannot see how an application for judicial review could succeed in bringing the abbey service to an end. Attendance is not compulsory. How can it be unlawful for the lord chancellor to invite judges to a religious service or for the dean to conduct it? And how can it be unlawful for a judge to go to church?
On the other hand, I do rather share the concerns raised by the two secularists, Peter Fisher, recently retired from the MoJ, and John Butcher, now a Surrey councillor. Much though I enjoy legal traditions of all kinds, I do wonder whether it is still appropriate for judges of many faiths and none to pray together for guidance. It is not very edifying to see independent judges taking part in religious rites which are, at best, meaningless to them and, at worst, offensive to their actual beliefs.
And there are significant disadvantages. I don't know how the expense is shared between the abbey and the government but I do know that the whole thing costs a lot of money. It's not just the cost of the using the abbey, the cost of security, the cost of the reception and the cost of hiring limousines to take the judges to and from the law courts (they used to walk). The whole event takes place during the working day. That means the abbey loses a morning's entry fees and the courts lose a morning's work.
By all means keep the reception. But let's move the party, and the judges' private prayers, to a time when the courts would not otherwise be sitting.

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