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Tough judge with little patience for immigration lawyers beats Lord Justice Leveson to post of judiciary chief

The job of leading the judiciary was handed yesterday to a judge with a record of impatience over the tactics used by immigration lawyers.

Sir John Thomas promised to uphold the independence of the courts ‘despite the tensions that are inevitable in maintaining the rule of law’.

His appointment to the increasingly important post of Lord Chief Justice was a blow to rival candidate Lord Justice Leveson, whose report calling for statutory curbs on newspapers has been at the centre of a continuing political storm since it was published last November.

Criticism of aspects of the report – such as the apparent cutting and pasting of some sections from Wikipedia – is thought to have undermined Sir Brian Leveson’s chances.

The decision to give the job to Sir John is also a rebuff to lawyers who hoped to see a woman at the top of the judiciary for the first time. The third leading candidate for the post was Lady Justice Hallett, the judge who led the inquiry into the July 7 London bombings.

Sir John, who is President of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, takes over from the present Lord Chief Justice when Lord Judge retires at the end of September.

The Lord Chief Justice has become a figure of pivotal importance since Tony Blair’s constitution reforms of the mid-2000s.

Mr Blair’s decision to scrap the ancient role of Lord Chancellor inside government left the Lord Chief Justice as leader of and spokesman for judges, as well as the senior judge in deciding the interpretation of criminal law.

The Blair reforms, supposed to remove the judges from the political influence of the Cabinet, have instead served to make the Lord Chief Justice’s post one of increasing political sensitivity and scrutiny.

The new Lord Chief Justice, who is 65, was the chief spokesman for the judiciary in negotiations with the Blair government at the time of the reforms, which were deeply unpopular with judges.

His career as a judge was built in the commercial wing of the High Court, and he has also served as Presiding Judge, responsible for the welfare and careers of colleagues.

Sir John is known for his short temper, on display last year in the case of a Bangladeshi student whose lawyers made two last-minute applications to keep him in the country on the eve of his deportation.

He said that the procedure was ‘an intolerable waste of public money’, an abuse of the courts, and ‘totally without merit’. Lawyers who acted in the same way in the future would face ‘vigorous action’, he warned.

Sir John was also one of the judges who presided over the final hearings last year that sent terror suspect Abu Hamza for trial in the US.

He said yesterday that the judiciary ‘will continue to become more reflective of our diverse society.

‘It will also continue to play a constructive role in its relationships with Government, Parliament and the media, but with the tensions that are inevitable in maintaining the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the rights of individuals,’ Sir John said.