After IALL in Oxford, some of us seized the opportunity to take a few extra days to explore London. London is full of tourists, and sometimes the lines can be daunting, particularly at sites like the London Eye. Tourists were not pounding at the doors of the UK Supreme Court, however, which made for a very pleasant visit. Several of us opted for guided tours and also explored the excellent exhibition in the basement.
The UK Supreme Court has only existed since October 2009 per the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Final judicial authority for the UK was previously vested in the Appellate Committee of The House of Lords, its members serving as judges known as Law Lords. When the UK Supreme Court opened for business, the 12 Law Lords became the first sitting UK Supreme Court Justices. According to the Court’s website, the Court was “established to achieve a complete separation between the United Kingdom’s senior Judges and the Upper House of Parliament, emphasizing the independence of the Law Lords and increasing the transparency between Parliament and the courts.”
The UK Supreme Court is housed in the former Middlesex Guildhall, which sits on Parliament Square, across from the Houses of Parliament and next to Westminster Abbey. Constructed in 1913, the building once served as a Crown Court and was refurbished to house the new UK Supreme Court. There are three courtrooms in the building with the first being the largest and most traditional in appearance. The second courtroom is sleek and modern, and its glass back wall is etched with an Eleanor Roosevelt quotation. Court 3 is used by the Judicial Committee of The Privy Council (JCPC).
The 12 Justices sit on panels of five, seven, or nine, with five being the most common. Panels are assigned by the Court’s president, currently the Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury. The Court is the final court of appeal for civil cases from all of the UK, and criminal cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Court hears around 100 cases a year with about a quarter being criminal, and the rest covering a broad range of topics. The 12 Justices also sit on the JCPC, although other Commonwealth judges may be invited to sit on those panels. The JCPC docket runs about 50 to 60 cases per year.
Cases can take up to four years to wind through the UK lower courts, but can be expedited if they are time sensitive. Cases are chosen for a hearing in the Supreme Court if they have an arguable point of law and/or a “general impact on society.” The Court operates from October through the end of July, spread over four terms. Hearings average between one and five days in length. One recent, and quite compelling case, involved a transgender individual. In that case, the plaintiff applied for her state retirement pension when she was 60, but was denied as she had not formally applied for a gender recognition certificate. The Court had not yet decided the case when we were on site, but the judgment came down last week. The Court elected to defer the legal question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). One assumes that the CJEU will be out of the picture completely once Brexit is implemented.
The Court’s Justices are selected in a process that is quite different from that in the U.S., which is highly politicized. To be eligible to serve on the Court, a candidate must have served at least 15 years as a “qualifying practitioner” or two years as a judge in the UK court system. An independent panel of legal and non-legal experts vets and interviews candidates. The Queen formally makes the appointment. Mandatory retirement age is 75 for those Justices who were Law Lords, and 70 otherwise. In the next couple of years, half of the Court will be retiring. Currently, two Justices are Scottish, another is from Northern Ireland, and the Baroness Hale of Richmond is the only female Justice. The current lack of diversity on the Court will seemingly be addressed with the forthcoming wave of retirements.
The Court’s elegant emblem includes the blue flax flower of Northern Ireland, England’s Tudor rose, Wales’ green leek leaves, and Scotland’s purple thistle. These symbols are intertwined with a Libra representing the scales of justice, and an Omega, which represents the Court as the final source of justice in the UK. The Court’s colorful carpeting repeats the emblem and was designed by Sir Peter Blake, who also designed the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. The Court’s interior is functional, but also quite attractive; you can even rent out the place for a wedding, dinner, or other event. (Somehow it’s difficult to picture a wild wedding reception taking place here, but anything is possible.)
The Court employs eight Judicial Assistants (JAs)—one permanent, the others serve for one year. The four Justices with the highest seniority have their own clerks, while the remaining eight share four JAs. The Justices don’t wear traditional robes in the courtroom and sit on the same level as the parties’ legal teams. The Court’s usher does wear a gown, and barristers have the option of wearing wigs and robes. Barristers address the Justices as “Lord” and “Lady.” Hearings are streamed live and remain on the Court’s web archive for a year.
The Court’s library is generally not open to the public, but we were allowed a visit, hosted very graciously by Head Librarian Paul Sandles (one of two librarians on staff). The library spans two floors, and the walls have quotations (selected by the Justices) penned by a wide variety of authors ranging from Aristotle to Martin Luther King. The print collection is somewhat limited since most of the Law Lords’ book collection remained on site within the House of Lords. The library concentrates on basic texts on subjects covered in court, adding titles preemptively and as needed. There are some primary and secondary foreign materials. The library’s U.S. Reports set was donated by the U.S. Supreme Court after a visit by the U.S. Justices.
Although the Court tour does not offer the London Eye’s “view you’ll never forget,” it is nonetheless a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. In a jurisdiction that can lay claim to the Magna Carta (1215), it is fascinating to get a glimpse of a legal institution in its infancy.