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09th February 2011

Top court 'threatened by funding'

The president of the highest court in the UK has said its funding set-up means its independence is not assured.

The Ministry of Justice has a tendency to want the Supreme Court "as an outlying part of its empire", Lord Phillips said. The way the court has to negotiate with the ministry for what it will give "by way of contribution" is "not a satisfactory situation", the top judge said.

Lord Phillips raised the question of who top Supreme Court staff owe their loyalty to, him or ministers. He argued it was "critical" in terms of maintaining the court's independence that chief executive Jenny Rowe "owes her primary loyalty to me and not to the minister".

He said, in a speech at University College London, that Ms Rowe agreed with him but some people in the Ministry of Justice "do not appreciate this". He was speaking at the university's constitution unit, which is starting a research project on the politics of an independent judiciary.

The Supreme Court replaced the Law Lords as the highest court in the land in 2009. It is supposed to reinforce a rule that powers exercised by judges are not linked to the politics of Parliament. But Lord Phillips said that is threatened by the funding link with the Ministry of Justice. 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said there is no threat to the independence of the Supreme Court, stressing that it could not have unlimited funding when all other areas of Government were facing cuts.

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