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.

2008-07-04T08:28:00+00:00Tags: , , , |