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Former top judge in England and Wales condemns prison system as ‘inhumane’

  • Locking up offenders “like animals in cages for 23 hours in 24 is inhumane”, a former Lord Chief Justice says
  • Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers admits stress of chairing inquiry into ‘mad cow’ disease brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown
  • Warns PM against using ‘life means life’ for the worst offenders as electioneering catchphrase

The criminal justice system is condemned as “inhumane” and wasteful by a former head of the judiciary today.

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers says: “A system which doesn’t [rehabilitate] and locks people up like animals in cages for 23 hours out of 24 is basically inhumane.”

The former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales goes on to say that were he Prime Minister, he would “sweep out” older prisoners from the prisons, although he acknowledges it would be “politically unacceptable.”

“I think we lock people up for far too long. If you read any report on conditions in prison, they're always highly critical and we just don't spend enough on facilities in prisons or indeed in a lot of other places as we're seeing at the moment.

“That money you spend locking people up when they're not a danger, when they've been in prison for some years by way of punishment, it seems to me, is simply wasted expenditure.”

Lord Phillips who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 2005 to 2008, went on to be the first president of the newly created UK Supreme Court in 2009.

He also criticises the Prime Minister’s recent pledge that “life should mean life”, arguing that judges needed to retain the discretion that offenders might eventually be released.

“I'm not a political animal. I think Sunak is doing quite a good job in difficult circumstances. But when he produces a kind of catch phrase…[after the Nurse Lucy Letby case], if he’s going to remove the residual discretion, which keeps us compliant with Strasbourg’s view of ‘life’ not being inevitably ‘life’, if he is going to change that simply for electioneering, I think that's lamentable.”

He also reveals that when he chaired the inquiry into BSE or mad cow disease (1997-2000) he came close to having a breakdown. It was “without hesitation” the most stressful time in his career as a judge.

Asked if his family worried that he might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown he said: “I think that I probably was.”

“It was a period of my life when I was really stressed. I couldn’t sleep. I actually went to a hypnotist to try and see if he could hypnotise me to sleep at night, without any success. It was very, very stressful.”

“Just the sheer weight; and also the responsibilities it does weigh on you of the reputation of individuals. And in an inquiry, when individuals are maybe at fault, the suggestions of fault for the individual concerned, it's an enormously stressful thing and they've got to be given a fair hearing.”

“And in the context of the inquiry, it's very difficult to give a sufficient time to appraise the conduct of individuals.”

He makes his comments in an interview with the journalist Frances Gibb in latest episode of the ground-breaking podcast series, The Judges: Power, Politics and the People, hosted by The University of Law. The episode is launched today (Wednesday, January 10th).

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers is one of the most senior judicial figures in the land. He has held all three highest posts in the judicial hierarchy. As Lord Chief Justice, he oversaw the modernisation of judges’ robes, including the abolition of wigs in the civil courts.

You can watch the full episode on YouTube or you can listen to the podcast on The University of Law channel, which is being streamed on all major services including Spotify and Apple.