Saturday, October 17, 2009

Great Britain's Supreme Court

Great Britain now has a 12-member Supreme Court that functions separately from the legislative branch. For hundreds of years, the highest court of appeals in England was the Law Lords, who were part of Parliament. No more; Part 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 establishes a Supreme Court as a separate branch of government. It is also separate from the Crown, which for some, is a controversial move. An article from the British online paper, the Media Telegraph, by Tom Whitehead, dated October 7, 2009, "Crown Sidelined from New Supreme Court," reports

Judges in the highest court in the land will be handing down rulings in court rooms that have no symbol representing the Queen, who will formally open the court next week.

The Royal coat of arms is represented in courts across the country but is only present on the front of the Supreme Court and in its library.

Even the court's own formal logo, which carries an image of the royal crown, has been relegated to the front entrance and official documents and communications.

Instead a less formal emblem, which only contains national flowers and vegetables representing each of the home nations, features throughout the building and in the three court rooms – in a bid to be more accessible to the public. (snip)

MPs last night criticised the move and called for the coat of arms to be displayed within the court.

Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the commons Justice Committee, said: "I was surprised. I could not think of any good reason why the Supreme Court had to invent its own crest instead of the royal court of arms, that is a familiar sight in every court room in the country.

"It would surely have been just as appropriate for the Supreme Court?

"The constitutional change was to get the judiciary out of the legislative but it is still very much part of the UK system of governance of which the monarch is the head."

Andrew Rosindell, a shadow home affairs minister, said: "I can understand the Supreme Court having its own (emblem) but it should not be superior to the royal coat of arms.

"It should be prominently displayed in every court. For the Supreme Court not to have that then it is clearly a breach (of tradition)."

The Supreme Court has replaced the Law Lords as the highest court and is home to 11 justices, headed by Lord Phillips, the former Lord Chief Justice.

They are housed in the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square following a £77 million revamp designed to mark a clear separate between the judiciary and parliament, where the Law Lords used to sit.

The Crown has had responsibility for running the courts for more than 900 years and is traditionally represented by the coat of arms.

The official Supreme Court logo instead contains the royal crown and national flowers for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and a leek for Wales, although Plaid Cymru is also outraged as it is not even a leek but its leaves.

It was designed by Yvonne Holton, Herald Painter at the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland, and it was the Law Lords wishes not to have the royal crest.

The emblem was approved by the Queen although Her Majesty never saw the less formal emblem which does not contain the Crown.
According to the Wikipedia article, the new Supreme Court's jurisdiction includes appeals from courts in the United Kingdom's three legal systems: England and Wales (grouped together in the explanation; apparently the law is very similar though Wales now has its own National Assembly to make local laws), Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The Court's focus is on cases which raise points of law of general public importance. Like the previous Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, appeals from many fields of law are likely to be selected for hearing—including commercial disputes, family matters, judicial review claims against public authorities and issues under the Human Rights Act 1998. The Court also hears some criminal appeals, but not from Scotland as there is no right of appeal from the High Court of Justiciary, Scotland's highest criminal court.

The Supreme Court also determines "devolution issues"
Devolution is the legal process whereby England is returning self-rule to the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Apparently, "separation of powers" and transparency were the two main arguments for creating the Supreme Court and doing away with the ancient Law Lords. Concern that the European Court of Human Rights might consider the decisions of the Law Lords not to constitute a fair trial was part of the pressure. As part of the transparency and openness, the British paper the Guardian reported, on October 5, 2009,
The final arbiter of English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish law has been designed around a principle of openness: publicly accessible web updates on the status of cases before the court; discreet cameras in the corner of each courtroom making footage, where appropriate, available to broadcasters; even an interactive exhibition space in the basement where visitors are encouraged to try their hand at judicial decision-making (such as voting on whether the model Naomi Campbell had a right to visit rehab in private – as the law lords ruled she did in 2004).

As was their practice when sitting as law lords, the justices wore neither gowns nor wigs, but ordinary suits, apart from Baroness Hale, the only woman on the 12-member court, who donned a smart grey skirt and jacket with what appeared to be a pin bearing the emblem of the court itself. [a correction issued by the Guardian states that the Law Lords dropped the practice of wearing robes and wigs even before this incarnation, but that barristers continue to wear robes and wigs]

It is tempting to compare them to a gathering of accountants, or a high-powered board of directors; but judges, it transpires, appear exactly like judges even without a yellowing mop covering their heads. For anyone still confused, they needed only to open their mouths; it takes more than the absence of horsehair to disguise judicial vowels.

And yet, in most other respects, the symbols and protocols of constitutional authority were unshaken. The court's home is the Guildhall in Parliament Square, once the home of Middlesex county council, its stone lavishly refurbished, and there is a jaunty carpet throughout designed by Peter Blake.

The imposing neo-Gothic confection of court 1 is overseen by eight huge angels at ceiling height, with elaborately carved oak pews featuring griffins, unicorns, English kings, cherubs and at least one labrador. Spare it is not. In any case, if the judges were in mufti, barristers remained bewigged. Dress-down justice may be some way off yet.

Whatever the constitutional importance of the court, there was no questioning the significance of its first case yesterday. Five men accused of being terrorists are challenging the government's power to have frozen their assets, in a case which observers say could herald fundamental changes to an individual's relationship with the state.

Critics have been surprisingly spirited: the Daily Telegraph called the court's foundation a "perilous" and demonstrative of "Labour's disdain for our country's constitution", while even Lord Neuberger, the new master of the rolls, accused the government of making "what appears to have been a last-minute decision over a glass of whisky".

So which cases would the court preside over? On that, there was admirable frankness. "It is rare for the lower courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to grant permission for appeals to go to the supreme court," a poster declared to visitors. Instead, it explained, the court would decide upon its own workload, "which Lord Bingham used to describe as dining a la carte."

Wigs or no wigs, it takes more than a new court to consign judicial eccentricity to the past.

The President of the Court (what in the U.S. we would call the Chief Justice), is Nicholas Phillips, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, who was the Lord Chief Justice before the Supreme Court was formed. He is not a hereditary lord. You can follow the link to read the Wikipedia biographical note. More interesting is the British paper, the Guardian, which ran this Profile of Phillips, comparing him with the previous Lord Chief Justice, Woolf, in September, 2005, as he succeeded Woolf in that position. The profile includes a CV but also lots of color and personal detail.

Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the new court October 16, in a ceremony attended by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and top judges from Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, and Europe. U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Steven Breyer attended the ceremony. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had planned to attend, but became ill just after her plane took off from Washington, and had to miss the ceremony.

1 comment:

Michael Bromby said...

Good to see that the news of the new court is spreading, although it is the UK's Supreme Court, rather than one for Great Britian (which would be leaving out Northern Ireland and other islands not part of the mainland).