28 October 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
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An historic decision by the Government separates the judiciary from the law-makers and moves them out of the Houses of Parliament into the new Supreme Court. Corinne McPartland reports
The Law Lords packed up their statute books and cleared their desks earlier this year, marking the end of an era as the House of Lords - in its capacity as the highest court in the land - closed its doors for the last time. The Lords has now been replaced by the Supreme Court, which opened for business in October.
The court’s creation came out of a decision by the Government to separate the judicial and law-making functions of the House of Lords, a longstanding constitutional anomaly in the UK.
Until recently, senior judges were enlisted to hear cases of major public importance in the House of Lords itself. In effect, this meant they could vote because they were peers, but had a second role as the highest judges in the land. In practice, however, most Law Lords did not take part in political debates and rarely, if ever, voted.
But since October, the 12 Law Lords who used to hear appeals in Parliament became the first Justices of the Supreme Court. Their senior member, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, has now become the first President of the Supreme Court.
These leading judges will no longer participate in the House of Lords’ business, although they have retained the title that came with their peerage. Their move across Parliament Square into their new headquarters finally separates the different arms of the British state: Parliament will make the law on behalf of the electorate and the Justices will be tasked with assessing whether it is being fairly applied.
While devolution has shifted much of law-making to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the three legal and political systems will come together again in hearings before the Supreme Court. For civil cases from across the UK, and criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it will act as final court of appeal. The court will also house the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the decisions taken by the Justices will affect judgments in the lower courts across the UK.
In this sense, the court will operate along similar lines to the US Supreme Court which, at a national level, issues critical judgments from Washington on major issues, despite individual states retaining the responsibility for many of their local laws.
However, before its closure on 30 July, the Lords rattled through judgments that included a victory for Barlow Lyde & Gilbert (BLG) when a multimillion-pound claim against its client Moore Stephens was struck out. The eagerly awaited judgment in Stone & Rolls v Moore Stephens (2009) was handed down by Lord Phillips.
BLG commercial litigation partner Tim Strong, who worked alongside lead partner Julian Randall on the case and was at the House of Lords to hear the judgment, says: “The judgments seemed to go through really fast, especially because they were all such historic cases in their own right. Our case in particular marked the first time that anybody had tried to strike out against auditors.”
In the original High Court case, Stone & Rolls brought a £90m claim against auditors Moore Stephens in January 2007. The case had its origins in a major credit fraud committed by Stone & Rolls’ sole director Zvonko Stojevic against Czech bank Komercni Banka. The bank sued the company, forcing it into liquidation.
Stone & Rolls instructed Norton Rose litigation partner Sam Eastwood to seek damages from Moore Stephens, alleging that the auditor negligently failed to detect Stojevic’s dishonest behaviour and therefore should be held liable.
While the House of Lords decision marked a victory for BLG and its instructed counsel, Jonathan Sumption QC of Brick Court Chambers, it was a blow for the third-party litigation funding market.
Sumption was not the only silk to be celebrating on the final day of the Lords, with most of the legal names on the seven cases being QCs who took silk last year.
This included 11 South Square’s Iain Purvis QC, who helped songwriter Matthew Fisher win royalties from Procol Harum for his work on hit song Whiter Shade of Pale.
The Law Lords ruled that Fisher, who claimed he wrote the haunting pseudo-Bach organ melody that opens the song, is entitled to a share of future royalties.
Handing down the Lords’ judgment, Lord Neuberger said Fisher had repeatedly asked if he could have a share in the rights to the recording but was “rebuffed or ignored” by the band’s frontman Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reed.
While Fisher had been criticised by the band’s legal team for taking a long time to stake his claim for a share in the royalties, Lord Hope added that there were no time limits under English law in copyright claims.
Barrister Hugo Cuddigan, who worked on the case with Purvis, was at the House of Lords for the judgment.
“It was packed to the rafters and it was a fantastic opportunity to get the judgment on the last day,” he recalls. “It was my first time at the House of Lords and it was an honour to get there before it closed its doors forever.”
Blackstone Chambers’ Lord Pannick QC and Bindmans partner Saimo Chahal were also celebrating a win after the Law Lords unanimously found in favour of their client Debbie Purdy. Her request to have the director of public prosecutions clarify his stance on assisted suicides was granted.
Pannick and Chahal appeared to be on a roll: the former won the House of Lords’ landmark ruling on control orders in June while the latter is currently the Law Society’s solicitor of the year. With the Purdy case, they have both made history, being involved in the last judgment ever to be given by the Law Lords.
The victory also marked the third Lords win in a row for Chahal, who had won two other cases in the House of Lords in the past nine months.
“There was a tremendous atmosphere around the House of Lords that day and everyone, from top QCs and barristers, had turned up to be there,” says Chahal. “Even the antechamber next to the main chamber was full to the brim. It was a judgment bonanza and I think the Law Lords had reserved our case for their last because it had wide public interest. It was also a ruling that would have major impact.”
The ruling has paved the way for thousands of people who, like Purdy, want to know in what circumstances prosecutions would be brought against those who helped relatives
But perhaps more importantly, Purdy’s case was listed in the final historic slot for the last judgment to be given by the Law Lords before they were abolished.
BLG’s Strong says the closing speech by Lord Hope was particularly touching.
“His speech was very civilised and extremely poignant, especially when he talked about the role coming to an end. The House of Lords was full of ritual and history and it’s extremely sad that it has all finished, but great that a few people, such as me, were able to be there to mark it.”
So from now on, all judgments will be handed down in the new £59m Supreme Court across the green at the former Middlesex Guildhall, which is flanked by Parliament and Westminster Abbey in Parliament Square, London. The building has been designed to be more welcoming to the public, unlike the House of Lords with its dark corridors and hidden meeting rooms.
The Supreme Court will be open to the public during working hours and includes an educational facility with an exhibition area on UK legal judgments. The centrepiece of renovation is the new library, which is to be used by Justices and their assistants.
The new courtrooms have been specially designed for their purpose: discussing important points of law in the atmosphere of a seminar, rather than the adversarial environment of many other courts.
Two of the courtrooms have retained the original Victorian-Gothic fittings, while the third has been completely modernised and refitted and opened to light.
In the modern-style Courtroom 2, the justices will sit at a crescent-shaped desk during hearings and will be on the same level as everyone else in the room. Lawyers for each side in a case will present their cases opposite them while their clients, the public and press will be able to sit a little further back.
As a visitor you can stand behind a glass screen at the back of Courtroom 2 to watch proceedings or take a seat behind the lawyers in any court room where a case is being heard.
And in each courtroom they have video cameras because for the first time appeals will be able to be broadcast live, allowing the public to view the court at work.
There is still plenty of history attached to the building. But, through careful design, its creators have managed to establish a space that is welcoming to the public.
And they have gone some way (with the building at least) to connect the justice system and the people it is meant to serve.
The House of Lords explained
The House of Lords, which is also known as House of Peers for ceremonial purposes, is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and is also commonly referred to as ‘the Lords’.
Parliament comprises the Sovereign, the House of Commons (which is the lower house of Parliament and referred to as “the Commons”), and the Lords.
Membership of the House of Lords was once a right of birth for hereditary peers, but following a series of reforms these now form only a portion of the membership.
As of July 2009 the House of Lords has 740 members, 94 more than the 646-seat House of Commons. The House of Lords, like the House of Commons, assembles in the Palace of Westminster.
The full, formal title of the House of Lords is ‘The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled’.
PROFILE: LORD PHILLIPS OF WORTH MATRAVERS
In his capacity as a senior Law Lord, Lord Phillips will be the first President of the Supreme Court in the UK.
Born Nicholas Addison Phillips on 21 January 1938, he was educated at Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset, and King’s College, Cambridge. He completed National Service with the Royal Navy before being called to the bar in 1962.
Phillips was made a QC in 1978 and served as a recorder from 1982 to 1987. In 1987 he became a High Court judge, later presiding over the complicated trials involving the Maxwells and investment company Barlow Clowes. He was made a Law Lord in January 1999.