Supreme Court: how Britain’s highest court works

The UK Supreme Court has become the latest institution in the spotlight as a result of Brexit drama.

Britain’s highest court is due to hear a combination of two legal challenges to Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament in the run-up to the 31 October Brexit deadline.

One of the challenges was upheld by Scotland’s highest court earlier this week. A panel of three judges at the Court of Session ruled that the prime minister was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymieing Parliament” and that he had effectively misled the Queen in advising her to agree to the prorogation.

After scrutinising government documents, the judges said “it was to be inferred that the principal reasons for the prorogation were to prevent or impede Parliament holding the executive to account and legislating with regard to Brexit, and to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no-deal Brexit without further parliamentary interference”.

But another challenge to the prorogation was quashed by the High Court of England and Wales last week, on the grounds that the matter was “political” and therefore a “non-justiciable exercise of prerogative power”.

It is now up to the Supreme Court justices to decide whether prorogation is a matter for the courts, and whether it was legal for Johnson to advise the Queen to shut down Parliament for five weeks. The emergency hearing is scheduled to begin on 17 September and is expected to last for three days. 

What is the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the UK’s highest court of appeal for civil cases and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population,” says the court’s official website.

Before the Supreme Court was established, in October 2009, “last resort” hearings were heard by 12 professional judges sitting in the House of Lords.

But while the court took over the judicial functions of the Lords, it cannot overturn primary legislation passed by Parliament.

This check to the court’s powers is down to the UK Constitution, which runs on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – meaning Parliament has absolute superiority over all other functions of government and judiciary, including the PM and the courts.

Landmark cases

The Supreme Court has heard hundreds of important cases since being established a decade ago.

Although few have attracted as much attention as the upcoming Brexit ruling, some cases have made headlines.

In 2011, the court heard the case of Al Rawi v. The Security Service, with former Guantanamo Bay detainees claiming that UK government agencies were complicit in their detention, rendition and mistreatment.

As The Guardian reported at the time, the judges ruled that the security services could not give secret evidence in the case, because dismissing the former prisoners’ claims on the basis of evidence that their legal teams hadn’t seen would undermine the constitutional principle of open justice and the right to a fair trial.

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Another case that drew media attention took place in 2014, and centred around three men who wanted to be granted permission to undergo assisted suicide. The court had to decide whether the 1961 Suicide Act – which makes encouraging or aiding another person to commit suicide illegal – infringed on their right to decide when to die.

The Supreme Court judges ruled against the men, by seven to two, saying the question “centred on a moral judgement which should be addressed by Parliament”, according to the The Independent.



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