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Lord Thomas: Time has come for a criminal code

UK's top judge bangs the drum for reform of the criminal law

8 July 2016

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To ensure the rule of law is upheld, the lord chief justice has called for a new criminal code to clarify and simplify criminal law in England and Wales.

Speaking at a dinner for Her Majesty's judges at Mansion House in London this week, where the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, was also in attendance, Lord Thomas said the criminal law should be set out in a 'single, clear, authoritative, comprehensive, accessible, modern, written statement'.

'It is contained in a maze of innumerable, impenetrable, statutes and common law developments over the centuries, which is difficult to defend as entirely rational,' he continued.

'It is in my view long overdue clarification and simplification. We ought to be able to look to a single document that sets out the nature of criminal conduct, in other words, a modern code.'

Calls for a criminal code have been ongoing since the mid-nineteenth century with criticisms often levelled at the incoherent and inconsistent nature of criminal law.

In 1989 a code failed to materialise despite the Law Commission producing a draft bill, while in 1998, Lord Bingham issued a rallying call to the government for a new code at the same Mansion House dinner as Lord Thomas.

The UK's top judge argued that a new criminal code would improve aspects of our law in relation to security and address the difficulties of common law changes. -

He added that it would complement the Law Commission's work in pursuit of a new sentencing code while helping to increase the number of specialist criminal advocates.

Lord Thomas said judges were absolutely central to the rule of law and overseeing continual reforms, and while they were fulfilling their duty to develop the law, 'there are certainly areas of the law, where the common law's creative approach is no longer sufficient, and where we need to look again'.

'As judges, we will do all to assist, ensuring that such a codification is drafted in as clear and as concise way as possible,' he said, 'even if that means putting to one side, part of the way in which current parliamentary draftsmen approach matters'.

Thomas has previously criticised a failure to modernise the court system and took the opportunity to again outline the importance of an online court in the years to come.

'It will restore access to justice in civil, family, and administrative law which is denied, as I have said in the past, to so many across the entire spectrum of our society.'

The lord chief justice also reflected upon other ongoing reforms, including the development of a Forum of International Commercial Courts, which will aim to 'develop better ways of upholding the rule of law in international markets and commerce'.

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Procedures Courts & Judiciary