Until 2009 the highest court in the United Kingdom was the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. This made the House of Lords the highest judicial body in the United Kingdom.
Historically the logic of making the House of Lords the highest court in the country was that it was made up of Peers of the Realm. It was considered that only a court made up of the nobility could hold judgement on their fellow nobles.
In 1876 a Statute Law called the Appellate Jurisdiction Act made the House of Lords the highest court of appeal in the United Kingdom. It also set out the appointment of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly known as the ‘Law Lords’). These were permanent professional judges who were made members of the House of Lords so that they could sit within it as judges. As Lords, they were given the title of Baron.
Until 2009, this continued to be the way that the Law Lords operated. The only major change that was made was that the Law Lords stopped sitting in the House of Lords Chamber after World War Two and instead sat predominantly in a Committee Room as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.
Reform of the Law Lords
The first attempt to change the House of Lords was in 1873. The Government of William Gladstone attempted to remove the judicial function of the House of Lords. However, when the Conservatives came back into power this was abandoned and demands for reform did not re-emerge for some time.
The fundamental problem with the existence of the House of Lords was that there was no separation powers. The highest judges in the country were also members of the legislature. They therefore had a say over the laws which they would later have to enforce and adjudge in their judicial decisions. Although Law Lords rarely voted or spoke in the chamber, there was no constitutional barrier to the doing so.
In addition, there were also a logistical problem. The Law Lords took up valuable parliamentary space. There was an increasing consideration that constitutional reform needed to be made.
The impetus for the changes came from Tony Blair’s modernisation agenda. After reforming the House of Lords membership through the House of Lords Act (1999), the Labour Government went on to reform the judicial system in the Constitutional Reform Act (2005). This did three key things:
1. It removed the judicial function of the House of Lords. In its place it created the UK Supreme Court. The Law Lords then became the first justices of the UK Supreme Court. After 2009, as a result of the Constitutional Reform Act (2005), the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, and the Law Lords that sat as it, no longer existed.
2. It changed the role of the Lord Chancellor. The Office, and the person holding it, traditionally had a role in all three branches of the Government as:
– The Speaker of the House of Lords (Legislature)
– A member of the Cabinet (Executive)
– The Head of the Judiciary (Judiciary)
However, after the reform the role of Head of the Judiciary was given to the Lord Chief Justice and the Speaker of the House of Lords was created as a separate office.
3. It created the Judicial Appointments Commission to allow for a fairer and more transparent system for the appointment of senior Judiciary.
Today, the Supreme Court acts as a body that is more independent of government than ever. This was perhaps best typified by its decision in Miller vs Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that Parliament had the right to vote on triggering Article 50. However, with greater independence also comes greater transparency and understanding. Cases are filmed and can be watched live:
The court is also active on social media, showcasing what it does and how it operates:
Although the powers of the Law Lords and the Supreme Court remain essentially the same, its image does not.