The UK Supreme Court

What is the new UK Supreme Court

On the 1 October 2009 the new Supreme Court assumed the judicial role of the House of Lords and is now the highest appellate court in the UK. Its jurisdiction covers all matters under English law, Welsh law, Northern Irish law and Scottish civil law and like the previous Appellate Committee of the House of Lords will focus on cases that raise points of law of general public importance. The court does not have any authority over criminal cases in Scotland where the High Court of Justice remains the supreme criminal court. The new UK Supreme Court also has jurisdiction to determine devolution disputes, previously held by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in which the legal powers of the three devolved governments or laws made by the devolved legislatures are questioned.

The new Supreme Court is housed in the former Middlesex Guildhall on the western side of Parliament Square and forms part of a pre-existing quadrangle made up of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Treasury. This new location is highly symbolic of the UK’s separation of powers, balancing judiciary and legislature across Parliament Square, with the other two sides occupied by the executive (the Treasury building) and the church (Westminster Abbey).

The background to the new Supreme Court

The Supreme Court transfers judicial authority away from the House of Lords by taking over the judicial functions of the former Judicial Committee, the continued existence of which was seen as infringing upon the principle of the separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary. Reformers expressed concerns that the historical mix of legislative, judicial and executive power in the UK might conflict with the state’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights where Article 6 guarantees the right to a fair trial. It was argued that this put the independence and impartiality of the courts at risk. The pressure for reform therefore prevailed and under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which purports to guarantee judicial independence, provision was made for the creation of the new Supreme Court.

The rules governing the new Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has its own Rules and Practice Directions which replace the Civil, Criminal and Taxation Practice Directions and standing orders of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. The Supreme Court Rules 2009 set out the rules governing the practice and procedure to be followed in the Supreme Court. Their overriding objective is to ensure that the Supreme Court is ‘accessible, fair and efficient’. Whilst there are few substantive changes from the old rules there are some notable changes in terminology to help avoid confusion. Previously, there were two other courts known as supreme court, namely the Supreme Court of England and Wales, created in the 1870s under the Judicature Acts, and the Supreme Court of Judicature in Northern Ireland, each of which consists of a Court of Appeal, High Court of Justice and Crown Court. When the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 came into force, these became known as the Senior Courts of England and Wales and the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland respectively and court seals will be changed appropriately to reflect this. A solicitor of the Supreme Court will be a solicitor of the Senior Courts and the Supreme Court Act 1981 will be the Senior Courts Act 1981.

The Justices of the new Supreme Court

The judicial functions of the House of Lords were exercised by the Lords of Appeal in ordinary (the Law Lords). The Supreme Court comprises twelve Justices supported by a professional legal and executive staff. The first President of the Supreme Court is Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers and the Deputy President, Lord Hope of Craighead. There are nine other justices appointed, with one yet to be announced; Lord Saville of Newdigate, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe,  Baroness Hale of Richmond, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, Lord Mance, Lord Collins of Mapesbury, Lord Kerr of Tonaghmor and Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony. In addition to the twelve permanent Justices the President may request other senior judges from England and Wales, Northern Ireland and/or Scotland to sit as acting judges of the Supreme Court.

Accessibility to the new Supreme Court

The new Supreme Court is intended to make the workings of justice visible and accessible to the British public. It is open to the public and anyone can visit during opening hours. Further, almost all the proceedings will be filmed and sometimes broadcast. It is the only court in the UK which permits this.