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The Supreme Court – A Beginner’s Guide

The public profile of the UK’s Supreme Court has been unusually high of late. Most notably, perhaps, the Supreme Court’s Brexit ruling captured headlines on January 24 this year. The government lost its appeal against the High Court’s judgment that Article 50 could not be invoked without Parliament’s authorisation. (Article 50 is the formal mechanism a nation state must use to leave the European Union.) Upholding the High Court’s judgment, Supreme Court justices ruled prime minister Theresa May could not lawfully bypass MPs to trigger Article 50.

20 February 2017
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Any court ruling on matters as important as Brexit clearly carries great power and responsibility. Other subjects considered by the Supreme Court this year include the issue of term-time holidays for schoolchildren and the rights of an unmarried person to their dead partner’s pension.

So let’s take a closer look….

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (A court of appeal is a court of law that hears appeals against judgments.) The Supreme Court, as the earlier examples suggest, hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance.

Physically, the Supreme Court is located directly opposite the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. If you’d like to take a closer look, literally, the court is open to the public Monday-Friday, 0930-1630 (although the court does not sit on Fridays). Members of the public are allowed to watch cases when the court is sitting but space in the galleries is limited. Almost all the proceedings of the court are filmed and proceedings are also streamed online.

The Supreme Court was established on October 1 2009 to achieve a complete separation between the UK’s senior judges and the Upper House of Parliament (better known as ‘the House of Lords’). The Supreme Court justices therefore moved out of the House of Lords into the present building.

The Supreme Court currently consists of 11 justices supported by a professional legal and executive staff. Those justices are: Lord Neuberger (president), Lady Hale (deputy president), Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed, Lord Carnwath, Lord Hughes and Lord Hodge.

The Supreme Court also decides devolution issues such as whether the devolved executive and legislative authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have acted, or are proposing to act, within their powers. Devolution cases can reach the Supreme Court in three ways, being through a reference from someone who can exercise relevant statutory powers, such as the Attorney General*, whether or not the issue is the subject of litigation; through an appeal from certain higher courts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; and through a reference from certain ‘appellate’ courts. (An ‘appellate’ court is a court that deals with appeals against judgments.)

* The Attorney General is chief legal adviser to the Crown and has a number of independent public interest functions. The current Attorney General is Jeremy Wright QC (Queen’s Counsel), who was appointed to the role on July 15 2014. He was elected Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam in 2010.