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Lord Phillips offers to cut number of Supreme Court justices to save money

9 February 2011

Lord Phillips, president of the Supreme Court, has suggested a change in the law to cut the number of Supreme Court justices.

In a speech at UCL last night, Lord Phillips said the court could not be insulated from the need to cut costs and faced a “significant reduction” in its budget.

He said that for many years the judicial committee of the House of Lords and the Supreme Court had managed with 11 rather than the statutory 12 justices because of the absence of Lord Saville at the Bloody Sunday enquiry.

“Because we have managed with 11 in the past, I would not object to a change in the law which permitted our number to drop below 12 with the agreement of the president,” Lord Phillips said.

“At present however the court is working at full stretch. It is important that the court should have time give due consideration to the important issues that it has to resolve.

“It would regrettable if we were to come under pressure to reduce our number below that needed to cater properly with our workload in order to accommodate budgetary constraints.”

Lord Phillips said the court was currently recruiting two new justices, one to replace Lord Saville, who has now retired, and the other to replace Lord Collins, who is retiring in May.

The president of the Supreme Court described tense negotiations over funding with the Ministry of Justice and the Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

“In the course of negotiating these I received a letter from the Lord Chancellor indicating the scale of the economies that he expected the Supreme Court to make in terms that I can only describe as peremptory.

“It was also suggested that to save money our administration could be amalgamated with the Courts Service of England and Wales, a suggestion that was totally unacceptable.”

Lord Phillips said that eventually agreement was reached involving a “significant reduction” in the Supreme Court’s budget.

He said he approved this only after assurances from Jenny Rowe, the court’s chief executive, that it would be possible to make economies that would not damage the core functions of the court.

“My conclusion is that our present funding arrangements do not satisfactorily guarantee our institutional independence,” Lord Phillips said.

“We are, in reality, dependant each year upon what we can persuade the Ministry of Justice of England and Wales to give us by way of ‘contribution’. This is not a satisfactory situation for the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

“It is already leading to a tendency on the part of the Ministry of Justice to try to gain the Supreme Court as an outlying part of its empire.”

He added that the court’s chief executive should carry out her functions in accordance with his directions, and should be “principally answerable” to him.

“I consider that it is critical to our independence that the chief executive owes her primary loyalty to me and not to the minister,” he said.

“I know that Jenny Rowe shares my view. My impression is that there are those within the ministry who do not appreciate this. They treat it as axiomatic that civil servants’ duties are owed to ministers.”

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