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New UK justice ministry may be established over judges' objections

[JURIST] The English Lord Chancellor told a House of Lords committee Tuesday that the scheduled creation of a new Ministry of Justice split off from the traditional Home Office [official website] would go ahead later this month without any parliamentary bill and, if need be, over the objections of senior judges. Lord Falconer told members of the Lords Constitution Committee [official website] that the creation of the new ministry on May 9 was "constitutionally acceptable" and that "safeguards" would be in place to assuage judicial concerns.

The plan [Home Office 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 calls for a Ministry of Justice - a successor body to the current 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. 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. BBC News has more.

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