The new Supreme Court – its origins
In recent years, there have been repeated calls for the creation of a new free-standing Supreme Court which separates the highest appeal court from the House of Lords, which is currently the last possible avenue for appeal in the UK for many court cases. A Consultation Paper published in July 2003 argued that the creation of the court was necessary, as the current system raised questions about transparency and independence. As a result, a new Supreme Court will open its doors for business on 1st October 2009 in the newly renovated Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court building, with a price tag of £60 million plus projected running costs of £12.3 million.
Jurisdiction and Role
The creation of the Supreme Court will separate the judicial function carried out by the Law Lords from the rest of the parliamentary process. It will have the original jurisdiction of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords and will completely replace its judicial capacity, returning it to a purely legislative chamber.
The court will also house the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which hears appeals from British Overseas Territories and some Commonwealth countries. Devolution disputes will now come under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. It will also act as a final court of appeal for civil cases from across the UK and for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In the interest of 'open access', the Supreme Court's two courtrooms boast improved seating capacity from the existing committee rooms in the House of Lords in order to encourage public access. Furthermore, in a move which is unprecedented in England and Wales, the court will allow its proceedings to be televised from inside its courtrooms when it begins hearing cases later this year.
Eleven of the twelve current Law Lords of the House of Lords will be the first Justices of the Supreme Court. Anthony Clarke will be the 12th Justice and first to be appointed directly to the office of Justice. Lord Phillips, currently the Senior Law Lord, will become its first President. Although the new Justices will be disqualified from sitting or voting in the House of Lords, they can return to the House of Lords as full Members upon retiring from the Supreme Court. The Government is currently devising a judicial appointments commission, meaning that new judges will not be members of the House of Lords.
Critics have argued that the creation of a Supreme Court is nothing more than a simple re-branding exercise coupled with an office move. Although the significance and symbolic importance of physically separating the legislature and the judiciary cannot be overlooked, it will simply be a matter of time until we find out whether the Supreme Court will have a positive effect on the UK legal system and ultimately deliver on its promise of establishing a “major constitutional milestone”.