A Supreme first year?

The end of the legal year is fast approaching and with it the end of the first year of the Supreme Court.


Lord Phillips
Lord Phillips

Ahead of its opening there were many who were sceptical about whether the House of Lords needed replacing. According to critics the concept of the Supreme Court was drawn up on the back of a fag packet by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was trying to make his stamp on the legal profession.

There was no prior consultation with the judiciary before the changes were made and some raised serious concerns about what impact it might have.

Before he took up the Master of the Rolls post last October Lord Neuberger summed up the concerns when he told a BBC documentary: “The danger is you muck around with a constitution at your peril, because you don’t know what the consequences of any change will be.”

The President of the Supreme Court Lord Phillips said its creation could not be explained but it could be justified. The objective, he said, was to “make plain to this country that we have an independent Supreme Court that has nothing to do with parliament”.

That meant creating a higher profile for the Supreme Court justices in an effort to keep the public informed of the decisions they make.

According to Blackstone Chambers’ Michael Fordham QC the court has gone some way to achieving this objective. He says: “The move has certainly precipitated some legal change. Nothing monumentally constitutional yet, but, to take one example, the Supreme Court Justices looked at their first term’s docket of cases and it made them rethink the approach to anonymity in the interests of transparency and press reporting. I think the move was the catalyst for that.

“They’ve been bold and progressive in several of the cases so far, including the recent asylum/sexual orientation case. Not that the House of Lords wouldn’t necessarily have decided the cases the same way. But there’s certainly no new conservatism or reserve, from being more in the public eye.”

Much of the old conservative traditions have been done away with. Practitioners are no longer made to stand outside the court and bow to members of the bench as they enter.

There is a decent canteen and barristers can book their own rooms free of charge. The users committee provides a forum for practitioners and staff to make recommendations about how the court could operate better, with whether barristers should have to wear robes in court currently up for discussion.

Of course there have been a few teething problems, with Fordham pointing out that the lack of a clock was one such hiccup.

Aside from those minor issues practitioners have enjoyed the first year of the Supreme Court. Getting rid of the House of Lords might not have been welcomed by everybody, but the Supreme Court has won some reluctant fans.

The Supreme Court: the big decisions:

November 2009

Office of Fair Trading v Barclays Bank & Ors

A five-strong judicial panel handed a major victory to seven high street banks and a building society after ruling that an investigation into the fairness of unauthorised overdraft fees was beyond the scope of the OFT (25 November 2009).

February

US Department of Justice v Ian Norris

The court called a nine-strong panel to hear the extradition case against Ian Norris, the retired chief executive of  Morgan Crucible wanted on charges related to obstruction of justice related to an earlier case against him for price fixing. This trial examined the validity of the UK’s extradition treaty with the US. The court ruled against Norris, making it a rare loss for Brick Court’s Jonathan Sumption QC (24 February 2010).

July

HJ (Iran) v Secretary if State for the Home Department

The deputy president of the Supreme Court Lord Hope chaired a five-strong panel that held that gay asylum seekers can establish refugee status if the evidence show that they would in fact conceal their sexual identity  in order to avoid persecution.