Lord Nicholas Phillips of Worth Matravers, a former
president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Photo
by Linda Robertson.
Valuable lessons in assessing scientific evidence have
emerged from a major report on mad cow disease, retired British
senior judge Lord Nicholas Phillips says.
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (75) is a former Lord Chief
Justice of England and Wales, who retired late last year as
president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Lord Phillips, of London, has been visiting the University of
Otago Law School recently as the New Zealand Law Foundation
Distinguished Visiting Fellow for 2013.
And this week he gave the school's annual F.W. Guest Memorial
Lecture in Dunedin, focusing on human rights-related legal
He has previously conducted a major inquiry into the outbreak
of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad
cow disease, in the UK, resulting in a report issued in 2000.
The inquiry reviewed the emergence of BSE and new variant
CJD, the related disease in humans, and the official
response, until March 1996.
The inquiry had ''almost killed me'', he said in an
''It was the most exacting thing I've ever done.''
This highly demanding and complex but also interesting task
had included examining Government performance over a
considerable period, including the actions of about 200
politicians and officials.
''I felt a sense of enormous relief [after completing the
report],'' he said.
He found the British Government had taken the ''wrong
approach'' but had not lied about BSE.
Lord Phillips understood the report was still used by civil
servants in Britain, and still contributed to public policy.
BSE had caused a ''harrowing fatal disease'' for humans, with
more than 80 people thought to be dead or dying from it by
the year 2000, the report found.
The UK Government had believed the risks posed by BSE to
humans were ''remote'' and had sought to prevent ''an
But the public felt ''betrayed'' when the Government had
announced in 1996 that BSE had probably been transmitted to
humans. Lord Phillips said there was now much greater
acceptance in official circles that the absence of evidence
was not evidence of absence, and that sweeping safety
reassurances could prove ill-founded.
He acknowledged there were several medical conditions -
including mesothelioma, a form of cancer usually caused by
asbestos exposure - in which few signs of ill health were
evident during an onset of many years.
But this was followed by a devastating and often fatal
illness. Lord Phillips is president of the Qatar
International Court in Doha.