The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, gave evidence to the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee last week, estimating the cost of the proposed Supreme Court to be £7m per year.
It is a figure that will concern many. Currently, the cost of the Law Lords sitting in the House of Lords is a little over £600,000 per year, although this does exclude salaries. The estimate given by Lord Falconer represents a hefty 700 per cent increase on current costs.
Nevertheless, the legal community is largely in favour of a new Supreme Court. The Lord Chancellor told the committee: “I don’t think it’s a great price to pay for something like a Supreme Court.”
The public, as committee member and Conservative MP for Hertsmere James Clappison pointed out, might disagree with Lord Falconer. While Parliament and the legal profession are concerned with issues such as the independence of the judiciary, the role of the Lord Chancellor and the rule of law, what matters to “the man on the number 84 bus”, as Clappison put it, is how much he will have to pay for the new court.
Lord Falconer did not give many details of possible new cost regimes, but suggested one possibility would be raising civil court fees. Applying across the board from county court level up, the current proposal is to add between 20p and 50p to the cost of each civil court fee. Cases with multiple fees would have that amount added to each individual fee, rather than on a per case basis.
Scotland has already refused to raise civil court fees, and this loss of revenue would have to be borne by a transfer of public expenditure.
The location of the Supreme Court is also under discussion. The Lord Chancellor revealed that a shortlist of two buildings has now been finalised, and investigations are ongoing into both the Middlesex Guildhall and Somerset House.
These investigations include examining both buildings in terms of the requirements of the Law Lords, which Lord Falconer says will remain unchanged. Discussions are also ongoing with English Heritage over both buildings.
Another aspect being looked at is the maintenance of the wing of Somerset House proposed for the court. Currently this in the hands of the Inland Revenue, which formerly occupied the building. There would need to be a transfer of control from the Inland Revenue to the Supreme Court, which is another factor to be taken into account regarding the court’s budget.
Members of the committee compared the UK’s plans with the Australian High Court and the New Zealand Supreme Court. The Australian court has been in operation for a century and sits in a custom-built building. The New Zealand Supreme Court was established just last year, with its first hearings in July this year, and is currently working out of temporary accommodation.
Lord Falconer was keen to emphasise that the UK’s Supreme Court would not start sitting as such until a building had been found and fitted out. “We’ll get an end date when the building’s ready and we’ll start the Supreme Court then,” he said.
The committee asked the Lord Chancellor why the constitutional reform proposals, including the establishment of the Supreme Court, were initially announced by the Government without proper public consultation.
In his response, Lord Falconer refused to comment, saying merely: “These proposals should now be judged on their own merits.”
The Constitutional Reform Bill is at committee stage in the House of Lords and the debate is expected to last for some time. All parties have committed to its continuation into the next parliamentary term.