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The House of Lords is the highest court in the land - the supreme court of appeal. It acts as the final court on points of law for the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases. Its decisions bind all courts below.

Conditions for Appeal to the House
The right to appeal to the House is ancient but the conditions under which an appeal can be made have become closely defined over the last 100 years. Each category of appeal is subject to statutory provisions which provide for the granting of leave to appeal and set out time limits within which leave to appeal may be sought from the House. In certain kinds of appeal the statutes require a certificate from the court from which the appeal is to be brought, e.g., civil appeals are governed by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 with additional provision for England and Wales in the Administration of Justice (Appeals) Act 1934.

Courts from Which the House of Lords Hears Appeals
The House hears appeals from:

  • The Court of Appeal (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) (civil and criminal appeals);
  • The Court of Session in Scotland (civil);
  • A Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court in England and Wales and the High Court in Northern Ireland (criminal);
  • The Courts-Martial Appeals Court.

The House may also hear certain kinds of civil cases brought direct from the High Court in England and Wales and Northern Ireland under the “leapfrog procedure”.

Leave to Appeal
If the court below grants leave to appeal to the House of Lords the appeal may be presented direct to the House. If the court below refuses leave, a party may seek leave to appeal from the House itself. A petition for leave must be presented to the House within one month (fourteen days in criminal matters) from the making of the order of the lower court. Every admissible petition is referred to an Appeal Committee consisting of three Lords of Appeal. An Appeal Committee decides whether a petition should be refused or leave provisionally allowed. If provisionally allowed, objections will be invited from the Respondents to the petition (the other party involved in the case) and the Committee can then decide whether to refuse or grant leave or the petition can be referred for hearing and the decision made after both sides have put forward their arguments.

The Law Lords
The modern form of appeal to the House was established by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 when provision was made for the creation of Law Lords (the first life peerages). These peers, formally known as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, also sit in the House like other members. They are required to have held high judicial office for at least 2 years or to have been practising as barristers for at least 15 years.

Today there may be up to 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and they are usually appointed from the Lords Justices of Appeal, or less frequently, from judges of the High Court. Two are normally from the Scottish Bench. In addition, former Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, former Lord Chancellors and holders of other high judicial office are entitled to sit as Law Lords under the Act but in practice do so infrequently.

The Judicial Pensions and Retirements Act 1993, which came into force in 1995, lowered the age of retirement of Law Lords who had been appointed to high judicial office after the coming into force of the Act from 75 and 70. It also provided that no one except the Lord Chancellor may sit judicially in the House of Lords beyond the age of 75.

Sittings of the Court - When and Where
The Law Lords sit from Monday to Thursday throughout the law terms. The Law Lords may sit not only on days when Parliament is itself sitting for public business, but also during periods of parliamentary recess, prorogation and even (by special dispensation) during a dissolution. The House can be recalled specifically for judicial business.

The Law Lords used to sit daily in the Chamber of the House before public business began at 4.15 p.m. After bomb damage to the Chamber of the Commons during the Second World War changes were made. The Law Lords were moved “temporarily” to a Committee room to escape the noise of building repairs and were constituted into an Appellate Committee for this purpose.

This Committee first met on 26th May 1948. The experiment proved so successful that the arrangement continued after the repairs had been completed and in 1960 authority was given for a second Appellate Committee to be appointed. In modern times, although the Law Lords occasionally hear appeals sitting as the House, in the chamber, the majority of appeals are referred to, and heard by, Appellate Committees.

Hearing Appeals
For the purposes of hearing appeals an Appellate Committee usually consists of five Law Lords. Sittings take place in Committee Room 1 and, when necessary, Committee room 2. Final judgment on an appeal is always given in the Chamber, usually on a Thursday afternoon. This serves as a reminder that, despite modern practice, it is the High Court of Parliament that determines appeals.

Proceedings are less formal than the Courts below. The five Law Lords sit in a semi-circle round a horseshoe shaped table and the Senior Law Lord present presides as Chairman. They do not wear robes but counsel appear in wig and gown at the Bar across the centre of the room at which stands a lectern. Counsel for the Appellant(s) is heard first, then counsel for the Respondent(s) and finally counsel for the Appellant(s) in reply. There are frequent questions from the Law Lords as arguments are developed. The length of hearing varies but the average is just over two and a half days.

Once the hearing has been concluded the Law Lords discuss the case. Very occasionally they will recall counsel to tell them what the result of the appeal will be. Nevertheless, this intimation has no formal effect until it has been encapsulated in the Judgment of the House. By far the most usual arrangement is for judgment to take place a few weeks after the hearing, generally on Thursdays at 2 p.m. in the Chamber of the House. Sittings for judgments are full meetings of the House and other peers may attend although, by convention, only Law Lords take part in the proceedings. The Judicial Clerk summons counsel and other interested parties to the bar of the House and the presiding Law Lord sits on the woolsack as speaker.

Law Lords give their opinions in the form of speeches to the House. Each Law Lord states that for the reasons he has given in his prepared speech he would either allow or dismiss the appeal. The House, having agreed to the report of the Appellate Committee, then makes the orders which are the judgment of the House. The full speeches are made available to the public in printed form or via the internet.

After the House has given judgment a written order is prepared by the Judicial Office and signed by the Clerk of the Parliaments who is the Registrar of the Court. The Order is sent to the successful party.

Further Information

  • Current list of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and other Lords of Appeal (not disqualified by the Judicial Pension and Retirement Act) in order of judicial precedence.
  • Transcripts of judgments (Fees payable) are available from the Judicial Office.

    Telephone: 0171-219 3111     Fax: 0171-219 2476

Since October 1996 this information has also been available on the Internet. Judgments are available by 4.30 p.m. on the day of the judgment at:


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© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 2 November 1998