The Judicial House of Lords

1876–2009
Edited by Louis Blom-Cooper, Brice Dickson and Gavin Drewry
Oxford University Press; Hardback (August 2009); £95
ISBN: 0199532710


This is a kaleidoscopic and admirable work. Open and re-open at random, and you find a series of well-researched vignettes. They explore a story that goes back further than the title might suggest. History, politics, personalities, appointments processes, judicial styles, the development of the law in multiple areas: all are examined from national, European, Commonwealth and international perspectives. The editors and authors are to be congratulated.

Beyond expectation

Inevitably, the image is by way of snapshots, taken in April 2009. Naturally, the picture would now in some respects differ. The building was not fancied even by those keenest on the concept of a Supreme Court (see p 91). At a cost, it has in fact been transformed beyond expectation. It offers real advantage and better facilities – a view that the writer, although not wholly impartial (see p 93), believes is shared generally by members and officers of the court, users and visitors.

The role of the Upper House

The new appellate structure, whilst retaining some anomalous features, is easier to understand and explain. Any risk that the new Supreme Court will over-extend its role as a third pillar of the State seems over-stated – though only time will prove this. The role of the Upper House as a place where law, legislators and government could meet (stressed by Lord Salisbury in 19th Century discussions: pp 20, 27) has finally gone.

Lord Hope’s chapter explains how this role continued to the very end. Through (non-political) committee work, Law Lords could gain valuable understanding of how government and Europe function and how both inter-relate with national Parliaments. Future members of the Supreme Court will have to (and no doubt will) ensure in other ways that their new home is not an ivory tower.

Day to day business

As for the Supreme Court’s day to day business, continuity is the theme. The court-rooms resemble in lay-out the House of Lords Committee rooms, though without the central rostrum to which counsel used to have to move to speak and (sadly!) also without the symbolism of the “ghastly picture” of the Burial of Harold or its attractive counter-part of a youthful Richard II haranguing an expiring John of Gaunt (Louis Blom-Cooper, p 156).

An atmosphere of learned debate

The new Supreme Court will maintain the atmosphere of learned debate – together with the role of counsel as “skilled anglers” (Mark Littman, p 426). It is not likely to adopt the traffic lights approach of our namesake across the Atlantic. Whether political changes may result in further constitutional change, perhaps even to the Supreme Court’s role, only the future will tell. Whatever happens, The Judicial House of Lords 1876-2009 will provide valuable perspectives on the new Supreme Court’s role and activities.

Lord Mance is a Justice of the Supreme Court

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