From privacy to anti-terrorism laws, the new Supreme Court is changing British life. Who are its justices, and what are their views?by James Grant / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“The antithesis of politics?” The law lords in their robes, specially commissioned for the opening of the new Supreme Court, in 2009
“I think the public is beginning to discover our existence,” said Lord Phillips, president of the Supreme Court. “I am extremely enthusiastic about this.” We were sitting in the court’s new building and looking out across Parliament Square. The law lords, the UK’s most powerful judges, used to work in the cramped corridors of the House of Lords. But on 1st October 2009, they moved across Parliament Square, taking their powers with them, to become the first Supreme Court justices in the nation’s history. New robes were commissioned for the occasion (see opposite), with an ornate design of black brocade and gold lace by Ede and Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane—at a total cost of £137,956. Behind all the finery resides formidable power: the Supreme Court is taking decisions that have the potential to affect almost every aspect of our lives. And when it comes to being the target of public scrutiny, the justices are more ambivalent than Phillips’s assertion might suggest.
The court has been busy in the last few years. It has heard cases involving copyright law, the army, the security services, immigration, religious freedom, the right to education, the DNA database, parliamentary privilege, counter-terrorism and bank charges—and its judgments have caused controversy. One ruling even drew hostile comment from David Cameron in February, who was “appalled” by a decision made in the court’s first 12 months granting sex offenders greater rights of appeal. Cases have also caused internal ructions. Lady Hale, the only woman on the court, was aghast at the decision taken by her colleagues in 2010 to recognise pre-nuptial agreements.
Such disputes risk obscuring a crucial point: that in a democracy, the role of a Supreme Court can only be justified if there is proper public accountability of the justices. It is important, then, that the public has more information about the views of those who sit on this court. Sky News, the cable news broadcaster, recently opened a live streaming service on its website, which allows the public to follow the court’s proceedings online. This is a welcome development; but still, very little is known about the justices themselves outside the legal community, not least because they vehemently defend their claim to neutrality and political independence.