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Judicial independence

Judicial independence is the concept that the judiciary should be independent from the other branches of government. That is, courts should not be subject to improper influence from the other branches of government or from private or partisan interests. Judicial independence is important to the idea of separation of powers.

In some countries, the ability of the judiciary to check the legislature is enhanced by the power of judicial review. This power can be used, for example, by mandating certain action when the judiciary perceives that a branch of government is refusing to perform a constitutional duty or by declaring laws passed by the legislature unconstitutional.

The effectiveness of the law and the respect that people have for the law and the government which enacts it is dependent upon the judiciary's independence to mete out fair decisions. Furthermore, it is a pillar of economic growth as multinational businesses and investors have confidence to invest in the economy of a nation who has a strong and stable judiciary that is independent of interference. The judiciary's role in deciding the validity of presidential and parliamentary elections also necessitates independence of the judiciary.

Also, an extremely independent judiciary would lack judicial accountability, which is the duty of a public decision-maker to explain and justify a decision and to make amendments where a decision causes injustice or problems. Judges are not required to give an entire account of their rationale behind decisions, and are shielded against public scrutiny and protected from legal repercussions. However judicial accountability can reinforce judicial independence as it could show that judges have proper reasons and rationales for arriving at a particular decision. While judges are not democratically accountable to the people, the key is for judges to achieve equilibrium between the two to ensure that justice is upheld.

The development of judicial independence has been argued to involve a cycle of national law having an impact on international law, and international law subsequently impacting national law. This is said to occur in three phases: the first phase is characterized by the domestic development of the concept of judicial independence, the second by the spread of these concepts internationally and their implementation in international law, and the third by the implementation in national law of these newly formulated international principles of judicial independence.

Where British national law had previously impacted the international development of judicial independence, the British Constitutional Reform Act 2005 marked a shift, with international law now impacting British domestic law. The Constitutional Reform Act dramatically reformed government control over the administration of justice in England and Wales; importantly, it discontinued the position of the Lord Chancellor, one of the country’s oldest constitutional offices, who was entrusted with a combination of legislative, executive, and judicial capacities. The Lord Chancellor served as speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords; as a member of the executive branch and member of the senior cabinet; and as the head of the judiciary. Historically, the appellate function had a connection with the executive branch due to the types of cases typically heard – impeachment and the hearing of felony charges against peers. The Constitutional Reform Act established new lines of demarcation between the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary, transferring all the judicial functions to the judiciary and entrusting the Lord Chancellor only with what are considered administrative and executive matters. In addition, the Constitutional Reform Act replaced the Lord Chancellor by the Lord Chief Justice as head of the judiciary, separated the judicial Appellate Committee of the House of Lords from the legislative parliament, reforming it as the Supreme Court, and creating a Judicial Appointments Commission. The creation of the Supreme Court was important, for it finally separated the highest court of appeal from the House of Lords.

Canada has a level of judicial independence entrenched in its Constitution, awarding superior court justices various guarantees to independence under sections 96 to 100 of the Constitution Act, 1867. These include rights to tenure (although the Constitution has since been amended to introduce mandatory retirement at age 75) and the right to a salary determined by the Parliament of Canada (as opposed to the executive). In 1982 a measure of judicial independence was extended to inferior courts specializing in criminal law (but not civil law) by section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, although in the 1986 case Valente v. The Queen it was found these rights are limited. They do, however, involve tenure, financial security and some administrative control.

In Hong Kong, independence of the judiciary has been the tradition since the territory became a British crown colony in 1842. After the 1997 transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China pursuant to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered with the United Nations, independence of the judiciary, along with continuation of English common law, has been enshrined in the territory's constitutional document, the Basic Law.

Until 1 January 2010, the legal profession was self-regulating; with responsibility for implementing and enforcing its own professional standards and disciplining its own members. The bodies which performed this function were the Bar Council and the Law Society. However, this self-regulation came to an end when approved regulators came under the regulation of the Legal Services Board, composed of non-lawyers, following the passage of the Legal Services Act 2007. This saw the establishment of the Solicitors Regulation Authority to regulate solicitors and the Bar Standards Board to regulate barristers.

The 2000 case of Bush v. Gore, in which a majority of the Supreme Court, including some appointees of President George H. W. Bush, overruled challenges to the election of the George W. Bush then pending in the Florida Supreme Court, whose members had all been appointed by Democratic governors, is seen by many as reinforcing the need for judicial independence, both with regard to the Florida Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. This case has increased focus and attention on judicial outcomes as opposed to the traditional focus on judicial qualifications.