Honorary Fellow and President of the Merton Society (London)
"Merton is saturated in its history. Students at the College sense that they are a tiny cog in a very big wheel. That is how a judge should feel about the law, and that is how I feel. The echoes from Merton are loud."
It’s clear from these words that not only Philippa Whipple’s grounding in law from Merton but also her sense of history have stayed with her throughout her career. And it is a distinguished career, in recognition of which she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2015.
Philippa Whipple (née Edwards) came to Merton in 1984 to study law. After graduating in 1987, she went to law school. She got a training contract in a London city law firm, qualifying as a solicitor, and spent some years in that firm’s tax department. But in the end corporate law was not a path she wished to pursue. She left in 1994 to become a barrister and practised at the Bar for the next two decades, specialising in judicial review, public inquiries, medical law and tax – the last, a legacy from her city solicitor days. As a junior barrister she often acted for Government, being appointed to the Attorney General’s A Panel, which deals with the most complex government cases. Once in silk (having become a Queen’s Counsel), she continued to act for and against Government in a wide range of cases.
In 2005, Philippa was appointed a Recorder, or part-time circuit judge – "and I knew that was where I was ultimately headed". She was appointed a Queen's Counsel (QC) in 2010; became a Deputy High Court Judge in 2013; and was appointed a full-time High Court Judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in October 2015. The following month, she received her DBE.
She was a commissioner at the Judicial Appointments Commission from 2017 to 2019, and became a Presiding Judge on the South Eastern Circuit in 2018. She is currently the lead Presiding Judge on that circuit, which is the largest by far of the six circuits which make up England and Wales. She oversees the operation of family, civil and criminal courts in London and the South East - an area which stretches from Norfolk to Sussex via Oxfordshire. In recognition of her role, she attended the 'Gloves Ceremony' at Oxford Cathedral at the end of last year and was given a beautiful pair of white hand-stitched gloves by the City of Oxford. Her time as a Presiding Judge has been marked by the effects of the pandemic on the justice system. In her particular role looking after crime on circuit, she has been involved her in the reintroduction of jury trials in Covid-safe conditions.
As a judge, she has heard a range of civil cases including tax, sex discrimination and medical cases. One high point has been sitting as a member of the Divisional Court, a two-judge Court, with her old law tutor for Merton days, Sir Jack (ex-Lord Justice) Beatson. One of their cases together concerned Skye, a pitbull terrier who had been condemned to destruction under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Skye was in the end spared!
In recent years as a Presiding Judge, she has tried some of the heaviest criminal cases, sitting at the Old Bailey and other courts on circuit.
Her links with Merton have always been strong: she was a founding member and first Chair of the Merton Lawyers’ Association (a post she held for ten years, from its launch in 2006); and in 2019, she took over as President of the Merton Society. Among all her other accolades, Philippa is an Honorary Fellow of Merton. Furthermore, her husband, Sam, is a Mertonian himself.
The last word goes to her views on Merton and the Magna Carta, taken from her introductory words when she moderated a Merton Conversation on Liberty to celebrate Merton’s 750th Anniversary in 2014. She said this:
"Merton and Magna Carta have much in common: they are both creations of the medieval age, both continue to occupy important positions in our society, and both have retained their relevance through gradual evolution to meet the challenges of the day."
Merton & Me
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?
I remember feeling very lucky to have made it there, very blessed; I still feel that. I also felt excitement that I was beginning this dream-like next chapter in my life. I just could not wait!
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
My father had been at Merton and was so, so proud to have a daughter there. He was the first in his family to go to university having won a scholarship to Merton in the 1940s. Oxford, and Merton, were very special to him and formed part of my childhood too. Dad often used to come and visit me when I was there (too often, according to my mother!) We used to go and have a curry on Turl Street with anyone who was around. He died suddenly the week after I left. So my memories of Merton combine with my memories of him. That is a good way for me to remember him and to remember Merton.
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
That is a very difficult question for a rather predictable middle-aged mum! Perhaps this is my thing: Sam, my husband and a fellow Mertonian, is American by birth and he and my three sons have US passports (I don’t but I can travel freely with them). I have many very special memories of my time in the US over the years with family and friends. I would happily live in the US if that was where our lives took us (and if my boys end up there, obviously). I like the space, and the sense of freedom I have when I am there.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
When I was at Merton and for many years afterwards, I thought that I was just not as good as my male counterparts. This was not a general view I held of women, because I could see many very able women around me, but it was how I thought of myself. I think a lot of women used to think that, deep down. It is no surprise, really, given that the world we were growing up in and trying to succeed in gave a lesser value to women, in so many different ways. It took me a long time to get rid of this extraordinary, obnoxious view! So, my tip to myself would have been not to be so daft as to think, let alone accept, that I was less good just because of my sex. I suppose there is a bigger lesson in there: people are equals, whatever they look like and wherever they come from.