The Bridge Interviews
Sir Philip Otton
Former Lord Justice of Appeal
Her Majesty’s judges have a reputation for spending their lives in the cloistered world of the Inns of Court and asking questions such as “What is a facebook?” and “Who is Mr Wayne Rooney?” This month’s interviewee is a man who contradicts such stereotypes with his feet firmly on the ground and a good understanding of how the world works.
Philip Otton, retired senior judge and resident of Taynton, was born in 1933 in Coventry. He was an only child. His father worked in the aircraft industry. Philip was educated at Bablake School. “I was not a distinguished pupil. My form master said ‘He has taken the art of idleness to hitherto unconquered heights’ and my headmaster said ‘…a little sleep, a little slumber…so shall poverty come’ [Proverbs Ch2 VV10-11]. This was a bit of a wake-up call”.
Philip’s early ambition was to become a vet but he changed his mind and went to Birmingham University to read law. While at university he decided to go to the bar and he joined Gray’s Inn as a student, being called in 1955. He then was commissioned into the 3rd Dragoon Guards to do National Service. “The regiment was stationed in Germany. I enjoyed my time there and made lots of friends, some of whom I still keep up with.”
He then did pupillage at the legal chambers at 2 Crown Office Row in the Temple. This was a common law set handling work such as crime and personal injuries. His pupil master was Niall Macdermot who was also an MP on the intellectual Gaitskellite wing of the Labour Party which included such figures as Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. After pupillage Philip was invited to stay on in these chambers. “I devilled [drafted paperwork] for Neil and took my drafts to the House of Commons in the evenings where we would discuss what I had written. I would meet distinguished members, who were highly entertaining, and was occasionally invited to stay on for dinner”. Despite (or perhaps because of) this glimpse into their world, Philip was never tempted to go into politics.
“My clerk was very loyal and quickly got me some small work, mainly in the magistrates’ courts and later in the county court, and I started to build up a practice.” He joined the Midland Circuit. Getting going a the bar was financially challenging in those days and Philip augmented his income by reading the News Chronicle [long-defunct newspaper] for libel and some lecturing.
Then a big event happened. “One day I was going out on circuit and I talked to a young woman on the train. By the end of the journey all I knew of her was her initials on her suitcase and that she was a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital. Later I traced her and she agreed to go to a ball at the Hurlingham Club. The rest is history”. Philip and Helen married and have three children. Their older son is a banker in the USA, their daughter is a consultant haematologist and their younger son is a journalist in New York with AFP, the French news agency. After the children had grown up she had a highly successful career in the voluntary sector.
Philip’s legal career continued to develop. Solicitors liked what he did and he was instructed in a lot of crime and personal injury work. The government got to know about him and he became treasury junior [barrister for the government] for personal injury, a very prestigious thing to do. This kept Philip very busy with good quality work. He was then appointed Deputy Chairman of Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions [part-time judge] at the age of 36, a very young age to be appointed to such a job. In 1975 he was appointed a Queen’s Counsel. Then in 1983 he was summoned to see the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. “He said ‘We had you in mind to be a High Court judge in five years’ time but we need young judges now. Will you do it?’ I had always wanted to do it so I accepted. Lord Hailsham said ‘I have two mistresses, politics and the law. You can only have one.’ ”
Philip was only 50 when he was appointed to the bench, a very young age. “It’s a lonely job. You miss the companionship and support of colleagues and have to decide everything on your own.” Nevertheless he found the transition quite easy. He had to learn to listen to the lawyers appearing before him and not argue the case himself. “I had watched good judges to pick up hints.” One of these was Mr Justice Finnemore. “My pupil master had said that Donald Finnemore was a model of how to sum up for a jury”. Another exemplar was Lord Roskill who chaired an enquiry into the location of a new airport for London in 1970, with Philip as one of the junior counsel. “Intellectually fierce but a very nice man”.
As a judge Philip heard many cases involving personal injuries, contracts and crime. A difficult case involved a mother who had held down her daughter while a lodger raped her. She pleaded not guilty right until the point when the daughter was about to go into the witness box to give evidence. She then changed her plea to guilty to save her daughter having to recount her ordeal. He pondered what sentence to impose. He sentenced her to four years’ imprisonment. “I expected to be appealed either way but no one appealed.
He tried the first murder cases involving DNA evidence. In one, a farmer’s sheepdog dug up a bone in a field. The farmer thought it was a sheep’s bone but he showed it to a retired local policeman who said it must be the bone of a young boy who had disappeared some 30 years before. Forensic scientists recovered DNA and confirmed the identity. The boy’s father was confronted and claimed that his son had died accidentally and he had buried him. However the jury did not believe him and he was convicted of murder. What Philip knew, but the jury could not be told, was that the retired policeman had retained his notebooks from the original investigation contrary to all the rules. These included a statement from a neighbour who said that at 6am one morning she had seen the father going out into the fields with a bag over his shoulder. The woman had died in the meantime so this could not be used in evidence.
Following his involvement as Treasury Counsel in an inquiry into a hospital where there had been serious staff problems, Philip was invited to join the board of the Brompton Hospital in London. He had to relinquish this position when he became a judge, but a few years later was asked by the outgoing chairman to take over from him. “I said I couldn’t but he urged me to push to do it”. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice and eventually was given permission. He did this job for eight years, and was instrumental in the hospital being saved from closure in favour of the Harefield hospital which did similar work. He negotiated a compromise by which the two were merged into one NMS trust with the Harefield doing pioneering transplant surgery (at that time under Sir Magdi Yacoub) and the Brompton specialising in paediatrics. He also got to know Diana, Princess of Wales, who was a supporter of the Brompton and had a habit of arriving unannounced in the evening to talk to nurses.
In 1995 he was appointed to the Court of Appeal. This involved a much wider spread of work and could encompass patents, planning, crime and much else. It was very collegiate with much support and loyalty to fellow judges. It was also hard work. “In the High Court a case would sometimes settle just before trial and I could get a free day to catch up on paperwork. In the Court of Appeal nothing settled and we sat five days per week, writing judgements and reading documents at other times”. However he enjoyed the work which he found very stimulating. As a Lord Justice of Appeal he was appointed to the Privy Council, a job he retains for life.
Philip decided to retire at the age of 67. “I could have gone on for another eight years but I had done 17 years as a judge.” He wanted to go into arbitration and became a member of a commercial set of chambers, 20 Essex Street. There was a lot of international work and he sat as an arbitrator in places such as Dubai, Doha, Singapore and Hong Kong. He also took on several other roles. One was as a surveillance commissioner who was empowered to give authority to chief constables to carry out intrusive surveillance of those suspected of serious crime, mostly drug smuggling. Rather more high profile was an appointment to resolve disputes for the Premier League. One such involved a case in which José Mourinho was accused of “tapping up” Ashley Cole, who was then playing for Arsenal. “There were about 50 journalists and photographers outside the hearing. I had to take the biggest clerk from chambers to elbow the way through”. Yet another hat was the Adjudicator for the Jewish reparation scheme. Many Jews from Germany and Poland had deposited money and valuables for safe keeping in a London bank in the 1930s. A lot of these then died in the Holocaust. The government agreed to honour the claims of family members to these assets but it was necessary to determine who was entitled to them. Around 1200 claims were eventually paid.
Philip gave up all of these roles at the end of 2016 and now does no professional work. Helen came from Worcestershire and he came from Coventry, so it suited them to have a home in the Cotswolds between London and their original homes. In 1992 they bought a cottage in Little Barrington, while having their main home in London. The cottage was built by Thomas Strong, Christopher Wren’s main contractor for St Paul’s, who cut stone from the Taynton and Farmington Quarries after which it was floated down to London from a point near the Fox Inn. In 2010 they decided to sell both the cottage and the London house and buy a larger house in this area. They eventually found the old school house in Taynton. (People still turn up on the doorstep and say they went to school there.) He is a member of the parochial church council and Helen is chair of the village hall committee. He plays bridge, has French and German lessons, takes part in local affairs and he and Helen are patrons of Longborough Festival Opera. He walks his cocker spaniel Cleopatra (“Helen bought her for me to encourage me to retire”) and “enjoys the delights of living in this beautiful part of the world”.
Philip’s summary of his life is “I have been astonishingly lucky about everything in my career”. That luck has clearly been accompanied by a great deal of hard work, acumen, wisdom and Helen’s support.