A rose by any other name

by Colm McGrath

Continental lawyers will be aware that when referring to cases in the English Common Law they would often come across judgements delivered by the House of Lords. Those familiar with the organisation of the United Kingdom’s Parliament may have questioned how a legislative body, historically comprised not of elected members but hereditary members of the ancient aristocracy, could also function effectively as a court?

For over a century however the phrase had in actuality referred to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords comprised of professional legal practitioners of great learning and distinction. By convention, it was only these members of the committee, the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who heard appeals from lower courts.

Although perhaps anomalous amongst the states of Europe for being institutionally linked to Parliament, it was this body that was ultimately responsible for the careful and studied evolution of the modern Common Law. However the long reign of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords has come to an end.

From October 2009 the Supreme Court replaces the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords as the highest court in the United Kingdom. The new Court is ‘explicitly’ separate from both the UK Government and Parliament.

This new Supreme Court is made up of 12 Justices, some of whom were members of the Appellate Committee along with a number of new appointments. The extent to which this newfound institutional independence may herald a change in judicial outlook or a new era of closer judicial scrutiny of the Government will become apparent in the coming months.

More information on the new Supreme Court along with the schedule of cases and decisions can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/index.html

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