15 July 2009 | By Katy Dowell
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In 1876 the Appellate Jurisdiction Act created the judicial function of the House of Lords, the highest court in England and Wales. At the end of the month the Law Lords will pack up their judicial robes and wigs for the summer break, but they will have heard their last case in the House of Lords.
When they return in October they will be supreme justices in the newly opened Supreme Court, sitting in Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square.
On the surface it appears to be little more than a symbolic move, but in reality it marks the beginning of a new era for the judiciary, which is determined to highlight its transparency credentials.
“It’s right that you see the separation,” comments Old Square Chambers silk Jane McNeill QC, who worked on the penultimate oral permission hearing to be heard in the House of Lords last week (7 July). “It’s significant that they’re no longer seen to be working from the House of Lords; there’s some confusion among the public about how it works.”
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 created the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. It will comprise 12 judges and Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the current senior lord of appeal, will become the first Supreme Court president while Lord Hope of Craighead, the second senior lord of appeal, will sit as deputy president.
The justices who sit as life peers in the House of Lords will remain members of the upper house, but will be disqualified from sitting or voting in the house itself or a house committee or a joint committee of both Houses. Currently the Lords of Appeal have voluntarily excluded themselves from such activity.
Much of the daily judicial business will carry on as usual with the exception that the Supreme Court will also take over the devolution jurisdiction currently exercised by the judicial committee of the Privy Council. The questions to be decided relate to whether the acts of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are within the powers given to them by the UK parliament.
The judicial committee of the Privy Council will also sit in Middlesex Guildhall, but it will remain a separate entity independent of the supreme justices.
Lord Phillips noted: “The jurisdiction of the judicial committee of the Privy Council will continue as before albeit that the hearings will move from Downing Street to the new Supreme Court building, where I shall not regret exchanging a House of Lords committee room for a custom built court but I shall regret leaving the elegant and friendly Privy Council Court.”
The refurbished offices, like the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ), will be open to the public. It is hoped the prime location will attract visitors from home and abroad.
Malcolm Davis White, vice-chairman of the Chancery Bar Association, told The Lawyer in February: “It’s clear they want an increased profile. One function of the Supreme Court will be to educate the British public as to what they do.”
“All cases going to the Supreme Court are a matter of public interest,” another source added.
Justice must be seen to be done and the senior law lords are determined to make sure that happens. Regardless of the symbolic change of venue, the opening of the Supreme Court should hail a new era of transparency.