Continuing his round of interviews in the lead up to the opening of the new Court, last week Lord Phillips spoke to Robert Verkaik at The Independent.  The paper chose to emphasise his comments on the increasing prison population and gave the interview the headline “Law Chief: too many people are locked up: new head of Supreme Court blames government for overcrowded prisons”. 

In the interview Lord Phillips said

“When I was involved it was apparent there was a resource problem when dealing with IPP prisoners in relation to giving them the rehabilitation that they needed in order to be in a position to demonstrate they were no longer a danger, and also there was a problem with the resources of the parole board in considering whether or not they ought to be released”.

He added, cautiously, “I have always been in favour of alternatives to custody where that course is open to the judge.”

These remarks, in themselves, might be thought to be uncontroversial.  After all, prisons are overcrowded because not enough have been built and it is difficult to see how this is not the responsibility of the Government.   It is also clear that the new “indeterminate sentence for public protection” is causing problems and that there are difficulties with funding drug treatment and rehabilitation courses.  Nevertheless, this did not stop the Daily Express from lashing out in an article thoughtfully entitled “Fury as top Judge says too many crooks are jailed”.  A Conservative MP, David Davies, was, perhaps predictably, quoted as saying that “People like Lord Phillips just don’t live in the real world”.  Mr Davis added that if he was in charge he would sack most judges and replace them with an elected judiciary.  An interesting thought.  We can’t help wondering whether he had, in fact, read the original interview at all. 

Mr David Davies is the Conservative MP for Monmouth.  His website is here and more information can be found about him on that fine website  He is not to be confused with the slightly better known David Davis the former Shadow Home Secretary and noted libertarian.

The Morning Star also picked up on the story, finding a spokesman for the Prison Reform Trust who “broadly shared” Lord Phillips’ views.

The most interesting point about the comments went unremarked by either The Independent or the Express.  As Lord Phillips made clear by his use of the past tense (“When I was involved”) he no longer has any involvement in the criminal sentencing process.  Sentencing is dealt with by the Court of Appeal Criminal Division.  Comments on prison populations have often been made by the Lord Chief Justice but, less often, by the Senior Law Lord (head of the Supreme Court).  This perhaps reminds us that – uniquely (we believe) in common law jurisidictions – the Chief Justice is the head of the judiciary but not the President of the Supreme Court.

Lord Phillips also dealt with two other interesting points in the Independent interview.  First, he was asked about the controversy caused by his expression of sympathy with those faced with the dilemma of assisted suicide (see previous post).  He said

“I did not make a comment about our original judgment, I was asked point blank for a personal view in relation to a person who commits suicide. I was not making any statement in relation to those who assist suicide; I was expressing sympathy with somebody in the predicament that Mrs Purdy might find herself.”

Once again, it is difficult to see how such remarks could be controversial.  However, the original comments have, apparently, led the Christian Legal Centre to take legal advice on a potential challenge to the Purdy decison on the grounds of bias.  The story was run by the Telegraph the other day.  Oh dear.  It is not clear how the Christian Legal Centre thinks that the Guidance given by the DPP might be “withdrawn” in the (highly unlikely) event that the decision were to be challenged.

Lord Phillips also gave some insight into Supreme Court Listing, telling the Independent that A v HM Treasury has been listed as the first case in the Court (beginning on 5 October 2009) because of its general interest and importance


“We had discussions about which case we should take as the first case and we wanted to take one that had some general importance,” he said.

“It is a case which I think the public will find interesting. It’s one of a number of cases which we have had to deal with where there may be a tension of human rights on the one hand and dealing with the challenge of terrorism on the other”.

And Finally, UKSC Blog would like to point that the book which Lord Phillips is resting his hand on in the photograph at the top of this posting (taken from the Telegraph) appears to be a copy of The Law of Human Rights, co-authored by our own Hugh Tomlinson. 

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