This article was written by Andreas Kirkinis.
One of the most discussed issues in the legal and political arenas currently is the House of Lords reform and it thus inspired me to discuss what it is, and what it would entail.
Firstly, a short history lesson: the current House of Lords has 850 peers, most of them no longer hereditary, after a Labour shake-up during their time in government before the current coalition. The proposed reform is not new; the Parliament Act allowing the Commons to circumvent the Lords was passed in 1911, and the Liberal Democrats' intentions to further limit the peers' powers has been left unfinished since then. In 1909, the Lords rejected the government's budget, and the commons retaliated with legislation disallowing them to ignore budgetary laws for more than a month, and legislation allowing them to pass bills which went through to the second house three times after delaying for two years. The latter was further limited to one year in 1949, and the former's sessions to two. In 1963, women were allowed to sit in the house, and a law instigated by Labour MP Tony Benn allowed peers to renounce their hereditary peerages. Labour, in 1999, removed all but 92 of the remaining hereditary peerages, and in four years there had been efforts by all political parties to reach assent concerning which form the second chamber should have, either fully appointed, fully elected, or part of both, but no consensus was reached. Finally, the judicial arm of the chamber broke off from the House of Lords to create the Supreme Court in 2009. This lead to the current proposed reforms, which would make the chamber, for the very first time, either fully, or 80%, elected.
How is this relevant to the legal profession? Technically, it should not be, as all judges are expected to interpret the law in exactly the same way. However, even the most naive of people would recognise that judges, same as everybody else, are human, and humans cannot be expected to be exact clones of each other. As such, there will always be biased interpretations of the law, from the most benign to the barely-concealed bias, due to the nature of things. The only goal the system is capable of actually aiming towards is to limit that bias as much as is humanly possible. This is done through a series of things: ensuring judges are only the ones with the best education, both social and academic; diversifying the pool in order to balance points of view (what is sometimes referred to as 'positive discrimination'), and ethical training. With the aforementioned 2009 reform, it is no longer relevant who the justices are, as they are now appointed by a special commission, comprised of a combination of eight lawyers and judges, and seven laypersons. However, the proposed shake-up of the second chamber sets an example which was initiated by the previous reform, i.e. that neither the supreme court of the land nor the legislative part of the chamber is any longer comprised exclusively of the country's aristocracy.
This step, if decided to be undertaken, will have interesting repercussions on the way the two parliamentary chambers function. One of the main criticisms of the unelected second chamber is the fact that peers are appointed there because of nothing more than simply the accident of birth and they are not guaranteed to have the best interests of the public at heart. The cynics might argue that elected representatives are no more likely to be interested in the general populace's wants. Nevertheless, I made brief mention of authority figures needing to strive to limit bias in power-wielding institutions, and stirring the proverbial legislative and judicial pots in order to have a wider array of choices is a way to do so. It allows more people, from a broader group of backgrounds, to strive for those positions, rather than an elite bunch given a leg-up with unsubstantiated entitlement. Further, it gives lawyers and judges in the lower echelons the opportunity to reconsider their attitudes towards legislators in a manner similar to how they have changed those attitudes with the supreme court break-off. The former would argue a case differently if they were aware the highest judicial authority in the land is no longer as likely to be a group of white, middle-aged, upper-middle class men. Similarly, the latter would interpret the law, arguing for or against it, in a different manner if they are aware both legislative chambers are primarily comprised of a healthy projection of the majority of the population's attitudes. This is not to say that either the house of Lords or the supreme court is even remotely close to being such a representation at the moment. The court, for example, is all-male, with the exception of Baroness Hale. That statistic, in the 21st century, is embarrassing. Minority justices and members of either chamber are equally scarce, with no justices representing the LGBT community whatsoever, to the author's knowledge. To clarify, I am not advocating for positive discrimination for the sheer sake of it, and no rational person wishes competence to be sacrificed simply for the sake of diversity. But there is something fundamentally flawed in a powerful group of people which appears to be mostly white, male, and straight.
At the current moment, it is extremely unclear whether or not this reform will pass, with an abundance of Tory and Labour MPs threatening to rebel by voting against it. Even if it does pass through the commons, the lords, who are evidently primarily against it, will also try and stall the process as much as possible. Nevertheless, dialogue has at least been officially initiated on the issue. In a country which takes pride in making great steps towards democracy and equality, and is famously one of the most liberal countries in Europe, it is evident that this discussion has long been overdue. A century overdue, to be exact.