There have, in recent years, been mounting calls for the creation of a new free-standing Supreme Court. This court would separate the highest appeal court from the second house of Parliament (the House of Lords). On 12 June 2003 the Government announced its intention to do so, and eventually the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was enacted. This Act paved the way for the creation of a new Supreme Court for the United Kingdom. Below we examine the existing system and consider what will change (if anything) when the new Supreme Court opens for business this year in October.
The Existing System – The House of Lords
At present the most senior judges, the twelve Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (or Law Lords as they are often called) sit in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is the highest court in the land – the supreme court of appeal. It acts as the final court on points of law for the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases. Its decisions bind all courts below it.
The judges, as members of the House of Lords, not only sit judicially but also are able to become involved in the debate and subsequent enactment of Government legislation. In practice, the Law Lords rarely get involved in the creation of Acts of Parliament, but it has long been argued that the judges should be totally separated from the role of politicians in the law-making process. The new Supreme Court will mean that the most senior judges will be entirely separate from the parliamentary process.
The New System – The Supreme Court
To go with the change of name is a change of location. The new Supreme Court will sit alongside the Houses of Parliament in the renovated Middlesex Guildhall. Work on the new Supreme Court building started in June 2007, and it is expected that the building will be open for business in October 2009. The costs for moving the Court into this building are estimated at £56.9m. Although this is a lot of money, it is hoped that the funds will have been well spent in creating a building suitable for an institution as important as the highest court in the land.
There will be no immediate change among the judges in charge of the court, as the current Law Lords will be the first justices of the 12-member Supreme Court. As new judges are appointed to the Supreme Court after its creation, they will become Justices of the Supreme Court and not Law Lords (or members of the House of Lords). Because of the automatic re-appointment of the current Law Lords, it may be some time before all the judges sitting in the Supreme Court are entirely separate from Parliament.
The role of the new Supreme Court has not altered drastically, and in brief it will
- act as the final court of appeal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland;
- hear appeals on arguable points of law of general public importance;
- hear appeals from civil cases in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland; and
- hear appeals from criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Despite the change of name and location, it does seem that when the Supreme Court opens its role will have changed very little. It could even be argued that the changes were just an expensive cosmetic exercise brought in by Tony Blair’s government. On the other hand, in these times when the role of Parliament is in question – particularly in light of scandals like MP expenses – the idea of having a robust and fundamentally separate court system is very appealing.
To round up on the subject of the changing UK court system, we will consider in a future article the fact that senior judges are increasingly required to decide matters of policy. Might they eventually challenge the very sovereignty of Parliament?