The British Supreme Court has heard its first case since becoming the highest court of appeal, demonstrating the constitutional change that has led to the increasing separation between the judiciary and the upper house of the legislature. The previous highest court in the UK, the Law Lords, was part of the House of Lords. Now the Law Lords will no longer sit in Parliament.
However, the change is merely in name and location, as the Court is still made up of the same 12 justices that made up the Law Lords. Whilst in court though, they no longer wear their traditional wigs and robes, but instead were recorded by microphones and cameras, signs of a new image of the British judicial system.
The first case, heard on Monday the October 5, was an appeal from five terrorism suspects. They believed that the British Government was wrong to be freezing their assets without a conviction. However, even if the justices reject the terrorists appeal, the defendants can still take their case to the European Court of Human Rights as European Law over rules that of British Law.
Cases will be heard by five “Justices of the Supreme Court” at a time. Each Justice will then come to their own conclusion and write a legal opinion on the cases. Each case will always come to a ruling as an odd number of Justices hear the cases. More important cases that have far reaching impact may involve all nine justices.
The Supreme Court in the UK has been mirrored to that of the Supreme Court in the United States. However, the British Supreme Court can only prompt lawmakers to call for reforms. Unlike the US, the UK doesn’t have a written constitution and so the British Supreme Court cannot strike down “unconstitutional” laws.
The only laws that the justices can strike down are those that contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, which became part of British law in 1998.
The British constitution is certainly in a period of transition with the new powers given to the justices, with century old traditions being altered. Whilst this new body is meant to help the independence of the judiciary, they are concerns that it may become a new power to hinder parliamentary sovereignty and the powers given to an elected Government with a mandate to make laws.
According to Lord Phillips, President of the new Court, the creation of a British Supreme Court is “the last step in divorcing the Law Lords from any connection with the legislative business of the House of Lords”, suggesting that the independence of the judiciary is important and much needed step for a sound court and law system.