The UK Supreme Court: Sgt Pepper, a press release and the US constitution

On the carpet, clockwise from top left, a thistle, rose, leek and flax representing Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Photo credit: UK Supreme Court (Court 1) by diamond geezer, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
On the carpet, clockwise from top left, a thistle, rose, leek and flax representing Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Photo credit: UK Supreme Court (Court 1) by diamond geezer, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Plaintiffs, felonies, misdemeanours and grand juries. All these American legal words sound strange to British ears. But like most of the US legal system, these terms first crossed the Atlantic westwards, having been coined long ago in this country before being abolished or renamed. There is one notable exception, however. The existence of a ‘supreme court’ is not an English idea but an American one, a concept that only recently landed on these shores.  

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, situated across the road from Westminster Abbey, is relatively new. Unlike its American counterpart, its birth is not to be found in a written constitution. Rather, our highest court’s founding document is a Downing Street press release, issued on the day of a chaotic cabinet reshuffle in 2003.

Tony Blair had just sacked (or accepted the resignation of) the Lord Chancellor, Alexander ‘Derry’ Irvine as part of a wider Whitehall reorganisation. Controversially, what the press release announced was the abolition of the ancient post of Lord Chancellor and all that the office entailed. It was profound and far-reaching.

Why have a Supreme Court?

All legal systems are tiered, so that the decision of one court can be appealed to a higher one. It is common for countries to have three or more tiers, with a final court of appeal at the apex. In France it is the Cour de Cassation, which is where Scotland gets the name for its highest court, the Court of Session.

In most English-speaking countries, the favoured term is, indeed, ‘supreme court’. Canada and New Zealand have one. So do Singapore, India, Kenya and South Africa.

But until 2009, Britain bucked the anglophone trend. The place at which all cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and all civil cases in Scotland, would end up was the House of Lords. Two centuries after the founding fathers of the United States recognised the need for the separation of powers, the highest court in this country was still a committee of judges formed out of one of the two houses of parliament. It was this anomaly, the anachronism of a half-enacted piece of Victorian legislation, that was only remedied just over a decade ago.

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Anachronism abolished

Two years after the press release, legislation was passed to create the Supreme Court. Unusually, it stipulated that the new court would not come into operation until a suitable building had been found to accommodate it. The Middlesex Guildhall, on the opposite side of Parliament Square to the Palace of Westminster, used to be the meeting place of Middlesex County Council. What was the council chamber is now the Supreme Court’s main courtroom, an enormous space allowing up to 11 judges to be seated in a horseshoe. Thanks to the televising of the court’s proceedings, many of us know what that room looks like.

The refurbishment of Middlesex Guildhall was extensive and expensive. The carpets (pictured above) were designed by Peter Blake, better known for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover. The emblem of the court features the national emblems of England, Scotland and Wales, together with a flax flower to represent Northern Ireland. Wrapped around them is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Ω (omega), signifying the finality of the court’s rulings. The zodiacal symbol for Libra, representing balance and justice, looks similar; a deliberate design choice.

The UK Supreme Court emblem. Image credit: https://www.supremecourt.uk/
The UK Supreme Court emblem. Image credit: https://www.supremecourt.uk/

How it works

The court consists of 11 judges known (like their Washington counterparts) as ‘justices’. Where the UK’s Supreme Court differs from the USA is in the length of the justices’ term of office, and the method of appointment. They are not appointed for life and must retire at 75, nor are they nominated by the prime minister or approved by parliament.

The Blair government originally proposed that an appointments committee draw up a shortlist of between two and five, with the government picking the winner, but a parliamentary select committee rejected this idea. Instead, all judges are chosen by an independent commission, in consultation with the justice secretary and the heads of the devolved governments, and formally appointed by the Queen. While they are styled Lord or Lady, new Supreme Court justices are not peers and may not sit in the House of Lords.

The Supreme Court is, in fact, the only United Kingdom court. It sits at the apex of three legal jurisdictions: England and Wales (which is one jurisdiction), Scotland and Northern Ireland. The court’s membership always contains two justices from Scotland and one from Northern Ireland. A case originating in Scotland will always be heard by a panel that includes the Scots’ judges, and they will usually lead the deliberations. But equally, judges from England and Wales will sit on those cases and Scots justices often do sit on cases originating elsewhere in the UK. The old judicial committee of the House of Lords was composed in a similar way.

Another legacy of the law lords is that, unusually, the Supreme Court justices do not wear robes. They are given a rather fancy gold-embroidered gown for formal occasions, not for day-to-day business. The law lords always wore ordinary suits too, largely for the reason that they were members of the legislature not the judiciary. That anachronism has been laid to rest on Britain’s long march towards constitutional reform. Although this new court was instituted in 2009, little has changed in respect of constitutional change since; there’s still a long road ahead.

Supreme Court judges. Image credit: https://www.supremecourt.uk/
Supreme Court judges. Image credit: https://www.supremecourt.uk/

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