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The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

Yesterday we celebrated the fourth birthday of In Custodia Legis, and today we have reached another milestone: this is the 1,000th blog post that we’ve published!  We asked David S. Mao, the Law Librarian of Congress, to write the 1,000th post.  In it, he highlights some of the many different areas of interest for the Law Library of Congress, such as legal systems, courts, foreign law, and of course, our collection of current and historical legal materials.

Above the entrance to the UK Supreme Court building is a frieze depicting King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.

Above the entrance to the UK Supreme Court building is a frieze depicting King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215. [Photo by David S. Mao]

On a trip to London in 2012, I walked past the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom located in Parliament Square. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to visit the Court, as it was Sunday and the building was closed. I was, however, able to take a picture of the front doors.

Earlier this summer, I visited London again. This time I made sure to visit Parliament Square on a weekday so I was able to visit the Court.

While the UK has a long history as a sovereign state, the Supreme Court is a very new entity in the UK. It was created by the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, with the Justices of the Supreme Court sitting for the first time in October 2009. The Court hears civil appeals from all parts of the UK, and criminal appeals from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I’ll leave it to Clare to explain the intricacies of the Court’s jurisdiction. She explained the basics to me as follows:

In addition to hearing civil appeals from the UK, and criminal appeals from England, Wales and Northern Ireland (these countries are collectively known as Great Britain) the Supreme Court hears cases in relation to matters of devolution—that is cases relating to the powers  and functions of the legislative and executive authorities established in Scotland, Northern Ireland and those relating to the competence and function of these authorities in Wales.

For Great Britain, an appeal to the Supreme Court may only be brought with permission from the Court of Appeal. In 2013 the UK Supreme Court heard 83 cases, which is similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s work load. A major distinction between the UK Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court is that the UK Court does not have the authority to strike down legislation—its role is to interpret the law and develop it where necessary.

The Supreme Court building has three courtrooms, the largest on the second floor. I was unable to take a photo of Courtroom One—an ornate wood-trimmed room with wood-carved public seating but with a very contemporary bench and counsels’ tables—during my visit as the Court was in session. I was, however, able to hear the arguments for the case, which related to whether the appellant was entitled to equitable compensation following a respondent’s breach of trust, or whether the Court of Appeal correctly limited the appellant’s remedy to the amount of its actual loss in all the circumstances.

A very modern Courtroom Two is on the first floor.  [Photo by David S. Mao]

The back of Courtroom Two has a glass wall etched with the phrase, “Justice cannot be for one side alone but must be for both.” [Photo by David S. Mao]

The ground floor courtroom is home to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. [Photo by David S. Mao]

The ground floor courtroom is home to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council the court of final appeal for UK overseas territories, crown dependencies, and Commonwealth countries that have retained the appeal to Her Majesty in Council. Notice the tiny flags representing the various jurisdictions that the Privy Council oversees.

Clare notes:

In the 1930s the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was reported as being the final court of appeal for more than a quarter of the world. While still substantial, the current jurisdiction of the Privy Council is far less wide reaching. The Judicial Committee has also retained jurisdiction in certain areas in the UK, as provided for in statute. For example, it is the appeal court for veterinarians from decisions of the Council of the Royal College of Veterinarians.

Some of the jurisdictions that Kelly covers are among those for which the Privy Council was, or still is, the final court of appeal. She reports:

While New Zealand abolished appeals to the Privy Council and established its own Supreme Court in 2004, there have still been a handful of New Zealand cases that have been heard by the Privy Council in the last few years. These are cases for which the New Zealand Court of Appeal issued a final decision before the start of 2004, or completed hearings before the end of 2003, and where certain other conditions have been met. In particular, a New Zealand court must give leave to appeal to the Privy Council, and the Privy Council must also give special leave for the appeal. Earlier this year the Privy Council granted a New Zealand man leave to appeal his 1994 convictions for rape and murder. In another high profile case, the Privy Council decided last year to quash the murder convictions of another New Zealand man, who is now on bail awaiting retrial in New Zealand.

Although established in 2005, the UK Supreme Court continues the long tradition of a system of justice and a commitment to the rule of law in the UK. This fact is very appropriately symbolized on the Supreme Court building. Above the main entrance is a frieze depicting King John handing Magna Carta to the barons at Runnymede in June 1215. Later this year, starting on November 6, the Library of Congress will launch an exhibition in celebration of the 800th anniversary of King John’s sealing of the great charter. From November 6, 2014 through January 19, 2015, we will have the Lincoln Cathedral 1215 Magna Carta and many other treasures from the Library’s collections on display.

If you would like to learn more about the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, or British legal history in general, here are some of the resources in the Law Library’s collection.

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