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Number of Supreme Court justices could be cut to save money, Lord Phillips suggests

14 February 2011

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

In a speech at UCL last week, he 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 to 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.

“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’,” Lord Phillips said. “This is not a satisfactory situation for the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said reducing the number of Supreme Court justices would require a change in the law and the government would “consult with the president” on the options.

In a separate development, Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, has suggested that parliament should vet or possibly approve the appointment of Supreme Court justices.

The think tank said that, because justices had “significant powers over what essentially are political matters, the views and competence of new nominees should be scrutinised by parliament before they take up office”.

Policy Exchange said giving parliament a role in the appointment of justices would “provide a check to the power of the UK judiciary over political questions without challenging the freedom of judges to make decisions without fear or favour”.

The report also recommended that the UK should open “time-limited” negotiations with the Council of Europe to make sure the European Court of Human Rights gave greater discretion to domestic judges.

If the negotiations were unsuccessful, the think tank said the UK should consider withdrawing from the ECtHR’s jurisdiction.

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