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Supreme Court (United Kingdom)

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The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is roughly speaking the highest court in the land. It came into existence on 1 October 2009, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. It continues, with some modifications, the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords.

Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court hears appeals from most courts, directly or indirectly. There are exceptions:

  • the High Court of Justiciary: Scottish criminal cases
  • the (Judicial Committee of the) Privy Council, which hears appeals on various matters:
    • various Church of England matters
    • various Admiralty courts
    • the High Court of Chivalry (in theory; in practice, apart from one case in the 1950s, this court has been defunct since the 18th century)
    • some professional disciplinary rulings
    • claims that someone elected to the House of Commons is disqualified
  • disciplinary decisions by either house of Parliament: these can be against anyone other than heads of state, accredited diplomats and members of the other house, and in theory could extend to committal to the Tower[1] for the remainder of the session (this has not been done since the 19th century)
  • disputes over succession to peerages
  • impeachment, where the House of Commons prosecutes someone and the House of Lords acts as a court; no such prosecution has been brought for more than two centuries, though some MPs have proposed such in recent times
  • Acts of Parliament that have the effect of judicial rulings; for example, in former times it was not uncommon for Parliament to pass an Act of Attainder declaring someone guilty of a crime (usually high treason); this was last done in 1746; more recently, Parliament granted divorces in England[2] till delegating that to a court in 1857

In at least some such cases, however, the Supreme Court can hear applications claiming a court's procedure or decision violates human rights. Similarly, applications can be made to the European Court of Human Rights against the Supreme Court's own decisions, though ECHR rulings do not take direct effect.

In theory, any Supreme Court decision may be appealed to the "High Court of Parliament". That is, on petition of a dissatisfied party, or of its own motion, Parliament may pass an act overturning a court decision. It may do so on a point of law, declaring that the law was not what the court said it was (as distinct from changing the law for future cases). Thus in 1689 Parliament overturned the court ruling in the case of Godden v. Hales that the King had power to grant a dispensation from the Act requiring officers to belong to the Church of England. Alternatively, Parliament may vary the judgment in a particular case. For example, in 1903 it changed a court judgment about the control of church funds in a dispute between two factions within a church, and in the 1970s it reduced penalties imposed on local councillors for wasting public money.

Constitution

The Court comprises 12 judges, appointed nominally by the Queen, in practice by the Lord Chancellor. They will not all sit on any given case, and in fact an odd number will do so to avoid tied votes.

Notes

  1. The Tower of Westminster Palace, not the Tower of London
  2. In Scotland divorce became legal at the Reformation.