The Constitution Unit


Judicial Independence & Accountability: A view from the Supreme Court

Judicial Independence Research Project Launch

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (President of the UK Supreme Court)

Date: Tuesday 8 February 2011, 6.00pm
Venue: Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL

Funding arrangements do not "satisfactorily guarantee" the Supreme Court's institutional independence

So said Lord Phillips (President of the Court) in his lecture last night, launching the Constitution Unit's new project on the Politics of Judicial Independence. He noted that because the original revenue streams envisaged for the court have not produced the amounts anticipated (Supreme Court souvenirs were one of the more unusual elements of this original plan) the court has effectively become dependant on a contribution from the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales for its operation - a stark contrast with the secure line of funding originally envisaged by Parliament for the new court. The result of this is that there is a "tendency on the part of the Ministry of Justice to try to gain the Supreme Court as an outlying part of its empire." 

While this is the first time this issue has been voiced by the President of the court, there have been rumblings of discontent within the judiciary about court funding. Given the Government's commitment to the reduction of public sector spending, this is a battle that is likely to run for some time. 

Lord Phillips also discussed the administration of the court. He stressed that it was "critical" to the court's independence that the chief executive, although a civil servant, owed primary loyalty to him (and not to the Minister), and added that this view was shared by Jenny Rowe (current chief executive of the Supreme Court). However, it was acknowledged that "there are those within the Ministry who do not appreciate this." 

Speaking about judicial appointments, Lord Phillips stated that the appointments process, as revised by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, significantly guaranteed institutional independence. Any move towards US-style confirmatory hearings should be rejected since this would "lead to the politicisation of judicial appointments and to the Court being seen to divide on some issue on political lines." 

Other issues discussed included the growing role of judicial review and human rights jurisprudence, and how the judiciary should not be viewed as overstepping its role in this context. The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A session, where Lord Phillips spoke candidly about his court's relationship with the Executive, Parliament as well as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

Please note Q&A under Chatham House rule. 

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