The UK Supreme Court

The UK Supreme Court

Today you will be learning about the importance of the UK Supreme Court, the final court of appeal for civil cases in the UK, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Start by watching this short video which shows you inside the Supreme Court and explains why decisions made by the Court matter to citizens in the UK.

The video points out that the Supreme Court exists to deal with cases which feature arguable points of law of “general public importance”, and explains what that means.

The Supreme Court and the UK’s Constitution

You’ve probably heard about the Constitution in the United States, which enshrines some of the key rights and responsibilities of American citizens and politicians, and sets out the relationship between President, lawmakers and judges. You might even have heard people talk about how the UK doesn’t have a constitution, but that’s not true!

Whilst the US has a codified constitution, that is, one single document which sets out the principles of its political system, the UK still has a constitution, it’s just uncodified. This means that the UK constitution draws on various written and unwritten sources rather than a single document. Watch the video below to learn about the four key sources of the British constitution:

  • Statute Law
  • Common Law
  • Works of Authority
  • Conventions

So, what does all this have to do with the Supreme Court? Well, by understanding that the UK constitution is shaped by the decisions of judges (Common Law), by Acts of Parliament, and by longstanding conventions, we come to understand that the decisions of judges on legal topics can be really important in shaping the fundamental rules of British politics.

The UK has always had a final court of appeal, but the Supreme Court in its current form was only founded in 2009. Before that, the judges sat in the House of Lords, part of the UK Parliament and therefore were also part of the process of making law.

This was increasingly felt to be in breach of the principle of separation of powers devised by the eighteenth-century philosopher Montesquieu. He identified three branches of government and argued that in a democracy these must be independent of each other.

The Legislature is the branch of government which makes the law. In the UK, this is Parliament, made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, whilst in the US it is Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Executive is the branch of government responsible for enacting the legislation passed by the legislature, enforcing the rules and running the country. In the UK this is the Prime Minister and their ministers.

The Judiciary is the branch of government made up of the courts, judges who decide whether the law has been broken. This means that they interpret the law, deciding whether people in individual cases have broken laws laid down by parliament.

The foundation of a separate Supreme Court was an idea set out in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, intended to enhance the independence of the three branches of government in the UK.

Judgements of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court passes judgement on matters of “general public importance”. This means that its judgements are of great relevance to politics and wider society. You can understand the significance of the Supreme Court through some of its decisions which affect everyday life in the UK.

Activity: Sixty Second Case Buster

Below we’ve listed a series of key cases on which the Supreme Court has passed judgement and provided resources for you to conduct some research. Choose one of the cases and imagine you are a journalist reporting on the case as part of a current affairs podcast.

Your job is to convince your listeners in sixty seconds that the case makes a difference to the everyday lives of UK citizens. If you fail to convince them that it matters, they’ll stop tuning into your show! You could produce some bullet points to take into the studio, write out your speech or even record your piece for the podcast – it’s up to you!

Journalists often work under tight time pressure, so you’ll have to think carefully about how best to make use of your time. The statements made in the Supreme Court as the judgements are released provide helpful detail, but they can also be long and complex. You might want to experiment with which resources help you to work most efficiently.

Click on each bar below to access more information.

Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (2017) – Politics
R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister & Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland (2019) – Politics
Uber BV and others v Aslam and others (2019) – Workers’ Rights

A case about whether drivers for the Uber ride-sharing app were classed as workers and entitled to the rights of workers like minimum wage and holiday pay.

Click here to watch the Supreme Court handing down judgement on the case

Click here to see a news report reacting to the decision and highlighting how further court cases were needed to see how the principle applied to other workers

In reading about this case you’ve probably heard the term “gig economy”. But what does this mean? Click here to learn more about the gig economy

Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others (Northern Ireland) (2018) – Equality & Discrimination

A Justice System that Reflects the Nation

One of the priorities in creating the new Supreme Court in 2009 was to make the justice system more transparent and more understandable to the public. You can go and visit the UK Supreme Court’s building, all of their sessions are streamed online, and they offer tours and education sessions to schools, colleges and universities.

But another priority is to ensure those making the decisions in the Court represent the nation as a whole. Click below to read biographies of the current Supreme Court justices, and reflect on whether or not you think the court currently adequately represents the country.

You’ve probably noticed that, of the current Supreme Court justices, all are white and only one is a woman. The Court therefore urgently wants to increase its diversity. One of the challenges in doing this is that the Supreme Court only hires experienced judges, and the legal profession as a whole is not diverse: nationally about 91% of judges are white.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Supreme Court and its priorities for the future. If you want to think more about how the Court can diversify, why not have a go at the challenge below?

Challenge: From School to Supreme Court

It’s crucial that the UK Supreme Court is sufficiently diverse to ensure the country can have confidence that the people making decisions about the law understand our concerns, and to allow it to appreciate a broad range of perspectives. The Court recognises that to make this a reality, they need to inspire more women, more LGBTQ+ people, more working-class people, and more people of colour to consider a career in Law.

Your challenge is to produce a poster which could be displayed in a school canteen to advertise careers in the legal profession. It could be targeted at one of the under-represented groups listed above in particular or might advertise Law in general, but should be aimed at Year 7 and Year 8 students and make clear that the profession is aiming to become more diverse. Your poster needs to be eye-catching enough to attract the attention of hungry pupils!

To help you produce your poster, click here and browse some of the information about careers in Law.

Going Further

If you’d like to learn more about efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession, click here to learn about the problem by reading about a study which showed more than half of people in Britain assume someone working in the legal profession will be white.

Then you might like to click here and watch this discussion, which includes a former Supreme Court justice, on efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession.

Emmet O'Leary
Emmet O’Leary

Emmet O’Leary studied History at St John’s College, Oxford. Whilst studying he spent time as JCR Class Rep, promoting the interests of students from under-represented socioeconomic groups and later as President of the Junior Common Room (JCR). His undergraduate thesis explored the impact of Famine in Ireland, and its demographic shockwaves, on cultural and religious practice in the nineteenth century. He has wide-ranging historical interests including the writings of the Enlightenment and the social upheavals of the European Reformations and is also keenly interested in constitutional law and its connection to current affairs. Emmet is currently Access and Outreach Intern at St John’s.