Too much God at judges’ service, say secularists
The lord chancellor is being urged to cancel the annual service at the start of the legal year on Monday on the ground that it undermines judges’ impartiality.
The National Secular Society has written to David Lidington saying that the traditional service is a burden on the taxpayer, privileges Christianity and perpetuates the medieval idea that the judiciary is closely linked with the church and the state.
The Anglican service is attended by judges, politicians and senior lawyers, uniting the different limbs of the constitution, with judges in their full-bottomed wigs and ceremonial regalia processing from Westminster Abbey to parliament for the traditional lord chancellor’s breakfast.
In its letter to Lidington, the society said: “Not only is the judges’ service incompatible with the generally accepted objective of achieving and demonstrating diversity in the judiciary, it also raises serious questions about the perception of neutrality and independence of the judiciary.” The society claimed that the service conflicted with the spirit of the judicial oath, which is “without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”.
The service appears “to entwine what should be an independent judiciary with a particular strand of organised religion, the established church”, the society wrote, adding that it “cannot be appropriate in an increasingly plural society for the judiciary to associate itself with, or appear to favour, one particular religious tradition or set of beliefs”.
“Even if the argument is that these ceremonies are merely symbolic, symbolism itself is important,” the society added. “The legal system is supposed to be secular. Court proceedings do not begin with prayers and nor should the legal year.”
The Ministry of Justice declined to comment. In 2013, when the issue last arose, it said: “We believe concerns about possible religious bias resulting from the judges’ service are completely unfounded. On appointment, every judge is required to take both the oath of allegiance to the crown and the judicial oath which requires them 'to do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of their realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will’.
“Judges attach the greatest importance to this oath and reach decisions without partiality or bias of any kind, including on matters of religious faith.”