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City Desk
7 August, 2009  
Supreme Court preened for action

October 1 sees a significant constitutional event as the House of Lords closes down its appeal function and the new Supreme Court opens for biz … Alex Mitchell in London inspects the fit out


Recession – what recession?

With unemployment in Britain at 2.4 million and public spending pared to the bone, the 12 Law Lords are about to move into a new London home renovated at a cost of $120 million.

Running costs are estimated to be more than $25 million a year.

The move, to happen in October, is a seismic constitutional event.

Until now the Law Lords have simply met in a committee room within the House, where they were known as the “lords of appeal in ordinary”.

After the change they’ll be “Justices of the Supreme Court” unable to speak or vote in the House of Lords, which will lose its judicial function.

imageLord Phillips of Worst Mattresses, the senior law lord and a former Lord Chief Justice, will be the first president of the Supreme Court.

The renovated building into which Britain’s most senior judges will move was previously the Middlesex Guildhall, a down-at-heel Crown court in Parliament Square.

It has been refitted with breath-taking chandeliers, top of the range toilets and even showers – unheard of in London’s old buildings – for those of their lordships who cycle to work.

Etched into the doors of the glass entrance are the words from the oath of office:

“I will do right to all manner of people, after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.”

The refurbishment, however, provides little more public seating than in the old committee rooms.

imageJustice minister Lord Bach (pic) has deemed the move “a wise use of taxpayers’ money” and hailed it as a constitutional milestone. Rather confusingly he said:

“We are living in a different age, a modern age … It is very important for people to understand that this separation between the government and the other parts of state are there to have them close together. It seems clearer and adds something to our system of government.”

Their lordships briefed a panel of art and design specialists chaired by Lady Hale to provide “an atmosphere of learned discussion”.

Cells for housing the accused have been cleared out and the warren of small courtrooms reduced to two.

A new emblem above the bench replaces the royal crest customary in courts across the land.

imageIt represents the four nations of the United Kingdom – a rose for England, a leek for Wales, a thistle for Scotland and a flax plant for Northern Ireland.

According to Lord Hope, who unveiled the new crest, it will “provide a strong, memorable and consistent reference point for the UK supreme court both at home and abroad”.

Their lordships are considering regular public broadcasts of cases, something which has never happened with any court in England and Wales.

However, all is not plain sailing.

In recent times the Law Lords have been relying more and more on secret evidence, on certain occasions actually refusing to show it to the appellants.

Presumably, all the whizz bang technology will have to be switched off and monitors go blank as the final appeal judges delve into secret MI5 files and other items deemed deadly to national security.

Possibly there’ll be an official bleeper to censor delicate bits being discussed between bench and bar.

The ratings don’t sound promising for this reality show.