Judicial role of UK House of Lords becomes UK Supreme Court

After a flurry of recent activity, this week proves a bit quieter, with no indication that we should be expecting any Supreme Court decisions to be rendered today or Friday. As such, I thought I’d take the opportunity to lighten our sometimes serious tone here at The Court, and share with our readers a few brief thoughts from a recent visit to the House of Lords in London, UK. While this is not related to the SCC per se, I nevertheless hope that it is interesting given the importance of this institution to our judicial heritage.

The House of Lords is the upper house of the British Parliament, and it consists of the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal. The former are staffed with various senior religious figures, including archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. The latter includes 92 hereditary peers (as is governed by the House of Lords Act 1999) and around 610 life peers. Roughly 30 of these life peers act as Lords of Appeals in Ordinary (commonly known as Law Lords), and it is they who perform the judicial function that we’re so familiar with. Since the House of Lords is a house of parliament, many of its members have political party allegiances. But of course, to maintain judicial independence, the Law Lords typically do not debate in the House.

The actual room itself is magnificently splendid. The head of the room holds an immensely decorated throne, with gilded golden decorations and intricate designs. Down the sides of the room are rows of plush, crimson benches where the Lords sit during their debates. Notably, there are fewer seats than there are Lords, presumably built for the fact that most do not show up for all meetings. Down the main aisle of the chamber, there are also seats for Lords that are not affiliated with any party –this is where the Law Lords would sit should they attend. As my words clearly do not do this magnificent room justice, here’s a link to a picture of the hall.

If it seems odd that a house of parliament would have both legislative and a judicial role, the UK House of Commons has duly noted this and has instituted changes to more clearly demarcate the line between the two functions. With the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the judicial function of the House of Lords will be separated out into a Supreme Court of the UK, which will be instituted in 2009. This move has naturally raised some furor in those who consider it to be devaluing an important and venerable aspect of the institution. Without going into the details, I’ll just offer a link to a policy paper on the need of a UK Supreme Court.

With so many common law precedents stemming from this institution still in force in Canada, I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this place. With changes in the near future, new judicial decisions from the House of Lords will be a thing of the past. Though this has no direct implication on Canadian law, and the reasons for the change are fairly clear, it is nevertheless somewhat sad to see this piece of our heritage give way.

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