There’s an eccentric side to Lord Phillips: I remember his speech to new bar students in 1992 in which he advocated our criminal justice system should adopt aspects of the French “investigative” approach to finding truth. Then there was his pretending to do community service back in 2006. Remember that? Now, though, he’s surpassed himself by lending his legal authority to the view, put forward by the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year, that Muslims should be able to resolve civil disputes including family cases, according to sharia law principles. I’m shocked, frankly. This is unfortunate, to say the least.
Lord Phillips takes the line, popular among defenders of Rowan Williams in February, that the Archbishop was “misunderstood”, and stresses that no one is advocating sharia courts which would order people’s hands cut off. That, I’m afraid, is pure spin and revisionism, whether or not Lord Phillips realises it. Overwhelmingly the criticism of Rowan Williams came from people who had read his lecture and did understand what he said: I did not imagine for a moment that flogging or cutting of hands was being suggested. The issue was the suggestion that family disputes could be resolved according to sharia principles. It’s not me and other opponents who misunderstand: it is Lord Phillips and other apologists for the Williams position who underestimate and traduce their critics. Lord Phillips used a passage of his speech to spell out in baby language what sharia is, and to dispel the myth that sharia courts might hand out terrible punishments. But no one ever thought Williams meant that. So why does the Lord Chief Justice treat us as idiots?
Lord Phillips wraps his message in silk:
There is no reason why sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
I agree, and I said so in my original reaction to Williams. All very polite and reasonable, yes? No. Like Rowan Williams, Lord Phillips goes further. Defending Williams, he says
It was not very radical to advocate embracing sharia law in the context of family disputes
This is the crux. Islamic law on divorce and children is clearly discriminatory in favour of men and against women, yet the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales says it is “not very radical” to propose applying it in England?
This dangerous idea is born of the idle musings of privileged, misguided men who have little idea of the lives of Muslim women and who prefer rubbing shoulders with “scholars” on trips to places like Oman. It must be firmly opposed by anyone interested in equality before the law and in gender equality.
As for Lord Phillips: if any public statement has ever shown the higher judiciary to be out of touch with society, this is it. Perhaps he knows he’s standing down soon, and has nothing to lose: if he were likely to hand around long, I’d say he should consider his position. Certainly, if these are his views, he is not fit to be the first President of a UK Supreme Court, a position it’s been suggested could be his. Nor would I like to see him sitting on that court at all.
Two thirds of Lord Phillips’ speech was very good indeed, a handy introduction to English law, if a little rose-tinged. It seemed unequivocal: ‘this is our law and you must abide by it. That won’t be difficult as there is no conflict with the variants of Islam I have observed. Where there is a conflict of laws, forget it, we won’t be adopting flogging no matter how popular it might be in some quarters.’
At one point he gets close to what other people have been sacked for saying: “Those who come to live in this country must take its laws as they find them.” which would be understood in the common tongue to imply ‘and if you don’t like it here, perhaps you should consider going somewhere else’. Then he goes horribly wrong on Rowan Williams. His desire to vindicate a chum must have over-ridden his intellect and he fails to realize where his friend was wrong in the first place. What’s more, he’s shoved the subject right back on the top of the news agenda in just about the worst week imaginable for the Archbishop. Look, Lord Phillips, please stop helping the bloke – he’s in enough trouble already.
The media pick up only this part of the speech and give him a kicking, although there is quite enough material in there to start writing headlines such as “Top judge warns Muslims: you can’t beat the wife” and “Judge says: our gaff, our rules”. It has been mischievous of the BBC and many of the other news services to stir this, because from their coverage you would never know that what Lord Phillips actually said was:
“So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English courts.”
I agree with you, woman (raft? raftess?), most of what he said was perfectly sensible – even, as you say, a bit Frenchly secularist in tone in parts. But I think you’re being a bit kind to him. I don’t the media are being mischievous at all.
If you spend all day baking a cake and then are silly enough to throw it in a policeman’s face, I think it’s unreasonable for you to expect the media to report that as “man bakes cake”. It’s obvious that “LCJ defends Williams over sharia” is the big story coming from this lecture, and I think Phillips was a bit naive if he didn’t realise that. Mind you, naivety is something I felt coming across when I read the lecture. Perhaps he lives on the same planet as Lord Hutton, who was surprised at how his report was received?
Naievty for sure. Not a wholly bad thing in a lawyer – it shows a persistence of idealism. The lecture was constructed for a general audience, despite the BBC insisting it was for an audience of lawyers, and reads more like an academic addressing a junior college. Nothing wrong with that, but he obviously didn’t realize that it had the PR potential to be picked up. Possibly judges are more used to being ignored than paid attention to, but also the accessibility of his writing means that journalists scanned it rather than filing it under ‘too boring to read’. Had it been pre-read by a spinner, the red pencil would have come out and his Lordship instructed to delete any sentence which refered to ‘Rowan Williams’.
I wondered though, about the level of vituperation in some of the reports. The Guardian made an effort to be balanced, but the Telegraph got the big hammer out. Damian Thompson in his Telegraph blog – which was linked from their front page – was scathing.
One or two other references show that in 2005 the Sunday Telegraph had to apologise to Williams for misrepresenting his religious views after the tsunami. The paper absolutely loathes the archbishop and has gradually become more strident in its Catholicism (upsetting a fair few readers on the way). This may be an oblique policy from the Barclay Bros, who are supposed to have entertained Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Connor on Brecqhou, where they have a private chapel.
Ironically, when the cardinal was contacted for a comment, his spokesman tactfully rephrased the words which emphasise the primacy of English law, implying that there has never been the slightest challenge by Catholic theocracy to English law. Dear me no, and certainly not this past oh, two hundred years.
What I think may have happened is that Lord Phillips was attacked more as a proxy for Williams than for his own shortcomings. He is, as you say, dreadfully mistaken if he is getting his sharia sources from smooth rich advocates rather than from the way people live here and now. That surprises me; if there is one thing a powerful judge can do it is to reach almost anyone at anytime if they choose to investigate.
I wish Lord Phillips would write more because he is easy to read and explains things well, but it would be better if he got out and did some first-hand field investigation.
I must look out for that Damian Thompson piece – I’m pretty scathing about Williams myself, given a chance! It’s not that I have any ulterior reason to take against him – I don’t (I’m a militant Dawkinsite atheist, I admit, but I don’t think bishops should actually be banned or anything). It’s that his public statements and actions show him to be a man who pays lip service to liberal principles yet who’ll never stand up for them. So my criticism is scathing, yes, but it’s about the content of what he says.
On Phillips, something else that annoys me slightly about his lecture (apart from defending Williams, BAD ENOUGH in my eyes) is what seems a patronising assumption that although he admits to being no expert on sharia, we are likely to know even less than him about it. Does that come over to you, too?
Yes, but it would be fair to say that I know less about sharia than Lord Phillips does as he has been in close contact with at least some authorities. He probably talks to more rabbis and priests, too, and he’s undoubtedly cleverer than me – so if he is slightly patronizing to the general audience I probably wouldn’t even notice, being far too busy tugging my forelock. I suspect that I’m closer to the general profile on this than you are. It annoys you more because you know more.
There is a whiff of the 1950s about Lord Phillips; optimistic, New Elizabethan, white heat of technology, we’re all reasonable people, religion is a benign expression of moral sentiment, human rights will fix this, etc. (Molesworth says it is the smell of chalk, latin books, skool ink, foopball boots and birdseed.)
Along with this goes the antique misapprehension that religion is handed down exactly like a judge interpreting the law. In LCJ world, a judge makes some stern comments about the primacy of English law, and that is picked up by key imams and perhaps lawyers, and we will have no more of this honour-killing business on the streets of Bradford. Well, I suppose it is worth a try, any help is to be welcomed, but his Lordship doesn’t seem to understand the dynamic.
This Times story illustrates how religious pressure rises up from the streets, not just percolating down from the cool considerations of reasonable chaps. A local councilor in Lancashire is allegedly facing discrimination not from the BNP, but from some of her own Muslim constituents who don’t think that a Muslim woman should be doing the job at all. (The story is light on crucial detail which might give a different slant on the allegations. It would be nice if the papers went back to doing investigative journalism, too).
The local imam was asked for his view:
Dukandar Idris, the imam of Chorley’s Dawat ul Islam mosque, said that Mrs Khan should have taken her grievances to the mosque’s elders, rather than speaking out. He also questioned some of her claims: “Which streets can’t she walk down?” He said that, as imam, he could not forbid Muslim women from standing for election, but he would be entitled to forbid his wife. “Because this is Britain, you cannot tell anyone what to do. I can tell my wife, but cannot tell other women, ‘You cannot do this and that’,” he said.
Is it not the case that Phillips has already been nominated to be the first President of the Supreme Court?
You also ask – “So why does the Lord Chief Justice treat us as idiots?”
It’s a common attitude toward “laymen” on the part of judges and probably many lawyers generally.
Ultimately the nation willhave to make a stark choice. Without a shadow of a doubt there are those within Islam who will not rest until that religion and sharia law are dominant within the U.K. Clever fools like Lord Phillips and Rowan Williams are encouraging that to happen.
You’re right, Anonymous: his appointment’s already been announced.