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Role, Importance and History

The UK Supreme Court was established by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and began its work in 2009. Watch Dr David Yuratich explain more.
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The Supreme Court was established by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. It replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords as the highest appeal court in the UK, and it opened its doors for the first time in October 2009. We will soon be hearing from Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who was the Court’s first President. He will be telling us more about the creation of the courts and the role it plays within the UK’s legal systems. First though, let’s explain the basics. The Supreme Court is what we call an appellate court.
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This means that it hears appeals from other courts; so, if you are involved in a court case, it will not start at the Supreme Court, but it might end up there. Later on we will explain how a case ends up before the court. The Supreme Court can hear appeals from any of the UK’s three legal jurisdictions, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. It will not hear just any case. Generally, it only hears those cases which raise a point of law of general public importance, which the Supreme Court ought to consider at this time. This means it will only decide the most significant, complex cases and, in fact, the Supreme Court is not the only appellate court in the UK.
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Usually cases will arrive before the court after they have been dealt with by another appellate court, typically the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the Inner House of the Court of Session in Scotland. This should give you some idea of the importance of the cases it hears. Normally, they have already been appealed once before but they merit a final appeal. Before the Supreme Court was established, its functions were carried out by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, which was technically part of Parliament. That is why Supreme Court justices have the title Lord or Lady. Before the court was established, the judges of the appellate committee had to be appointed as peers.
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This is no longer automatic and if they are made peers, justices cannot sit in the House of Lords until after they are retired. There are a few reasons why the appellate committee was replaced by the Supreme Court. The main one was due to concerns about what we call the separation of powers. In constitutional law, we use three words to describe different parts of the state. The executive, or government, puts the law into practice. The legislature, which is Parliament, makes primary law, such as Acts of Parliament. The judiciary is charged with resolving legal disputes. In our system, it also develops what we call the common law found in decided cases.
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Most people who write about the separation of powers argue that these functions should be kept as separate as possible to reduce the chance of conflicts of interest within or abuses of power by any one branch of government. This idea dates back at least as far as the French philosopher Montesquieu, who wrote in the 18th century. Because judges in the appellate committee were members of the House of Lords and therefore entitled to debate and vote on legislation, many felt that this was inconsistent with the separation of powers and it could create conflicts of interest. What if, for example, a judge had voted against legislation that later came up in a case?
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In 1976, the judge Lord Denning began a judgment by saying of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 that “I remember it well. I attended the debates and took part.” That said, this had become increasingly unusual, by the time the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 was passed. That was in part because another judge, Lord Bingham, set out some clear guidance for the so-called ‘Law Lords’ to follow. He said that if a Law Lord did debate or vote on legislation, they would be expected not to hear any cases involving that law, and that any contributions they did make should be limited to matters unrelated to party politics, such as providing technical advice on drafting.
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Still the existence of the appellate committee did not sit well with the traditional separation of powers. It was the overriding reason that it was removed from the House of Lords and re-established as an entirely separate body. The Supreme Court today is entirely independent from both government and Parliament.
In this step Dr David Yuratich introduces the role of the UK Supreme Court and describes how and when the Court in its current form and location was established.

Key terms:

  • Appellate Court: a court that hears appeals from other courts.
  • Jurisdiction: the right, power or authority to administer justice over a given territory.
  • Executive: the branch of the state responsible for putting decisions or laws into effect.
  • Legislature: a law-making body such as the UK Parliament, the Scottish or Welsh Parliaments or the Northern Ireland Assembly.
  • Intervener: a third party permitted by a court to make arguments in legal proceedings.

Inside the UKSC Extra: an interview with Lord Phillips, the first President of the Supreme Court.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Lord Phillips, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, was the last Senior Law Lord, when the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords was still the highest court of appeal, and the first President of the UK Supreme Court (October 2009 – October 2012).

Why is the Supreme Court located in the former Middlesex Guildhall?

The Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) chose the Middlesex Guildhall as the home of the Supreme Court for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is in the right location – that is near the Palace of Westminster. Its location in Parliament Square fitted symbolically too, as it is close to the legislature, the Palace of Westminster, close to the government, represented by the Treasury and also to the established Church, Westminster Abbey. It was also the right size, and it was already owned by the DCA, so it was available once the Crown Court who occupied the building had moved to a new location.

In December 2004 the Lord Chancellor announced to Parliament that the Middlesex Guildhall was the preferred site for the Supreme Court. This was subject to a proposal to be agreed by the Law Lords in terms of the design and a conservative approach to altering the fabric of the building which was advised by Westminster Council and English Heritage.

The UK Supreme Court Online

Did you know that unlike other courts in the UK the proceedings of the Supreme Court are filmed and broadcast? From the Court’s website you can watch live, current or decided cases.

Have you ever visited the UK Supreme Court? What do you think about its location and the ability to watch its sessions online? Tell us in the comments below.

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Inside the UK Supreme Court: Its Role, Its Work, and Cases that Affect Us All

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