Succession planning

Just two years after opening its doors for the first time, the Supreme Court is on the hunt for a new president.

Lord Phillips
Lord Phillips

The incumbent, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, this week announced his retirement. He won’t actually step down until the end of the current legal year in September 2012, but the recruitment process for his replacement begins in January.

Over the past 11 years Phillips has held the three highest judicial offices in England and Wales and the UK – appointed as Master of the Rolls in 2000, Lord Chief Justice in 2005 and Senior Law Lord in 2008, assuming the role of president of the Supreme Court when it began work two years ago.

It is generally agreed that the outgoing president is at once an outstanding judge and a thoroughly nice man, who has overseen several changes to the court system. As Master of the Rolls, Phillips was responsible for ensuring the Woolf Reforms were implemented.

But litigators report that Phillips was ahead of his time when it came to case management. Even as a relatively junior High Court judge overseeing the mammoth BBL v Eagle Star case in the early 1990s he was foresighted enough to arrange an alternative courtroom when it became apparent that the Royal Courts of Justice rooms were too small.

As Master of the Rolls, Phillips became known for being an even-handed and competent judge and administrator and he was a natural choice to succeed Lord Woolf as Lord Chief Justice in 2005.

In another first, Phillips was the first Lord Chief Justice to take over the judicial responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor following the Constitutional Reform Act. At the time of that appointment, Phillips stressed that he planned to “keep out of politics” and ensure judges were doing their jobs properly.

In 2008 he made cost-cutting changes to judicial dress, taking wigs out of civil and family courtrooms.

Returning to the House of Lords in 2008, Phillips has guided the Law Lords through the transition into the more modern Supreme Court, presiding in the process over a host of crucial and high-profile judgments. The litigation community generally agree that Phillips has managed the transition – and the court’s relationship with Parliament – well.

So picking Phillips’s successor is going to be tricky. Most of the talk currently is centring around Lord Neuberger, currently Master of the Rolls. Neuberger only took over the role in 2009, succeeding Lord Clarke, who joined the Supreme Court.

The jobs of Master of the Rolls and Supreme Court president are of course very different; the former being perhaps more hands-on, with more day-to-day involvement in the civil justice system. Some suggest that this would suit Neuberger better – he has been heavily involved in phone-hacking cases and has spoken out in support of simplifying what he called a “regulatory maze” introduced by the Legal Services Act.

Other candidates could include Clarke, although he is a relative newcomer to the Supreme Court, or Lady Hale, whose reputation as a regular dissenter to the majority opinion has made her stand out. Lords Kerr and Dyson are also possibles, both being young enough and well-respected.

Potential presidents will have to throw their hats into the ring in the new year, ready for appointment in time for a smooth handover, something Phillips is keen to ensure. The country’s top judge intends to go out as he has practised; with quiet efficiency.