Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. Throughout his speeches, he has sought to give the impression that it is the Government who are taking a
20 Dec 2004 : Column 1550
peculiar view about the incomprehension of the public. He will surely recall the most compelling evidence given to the Select Committee on which he served by the senior Law Lord, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, who gave material and particular indications that even those entering law schools in this country did not understand that the House of Lords was the final Court of Appeal in this country. It is hard for this House to understand how the noble and learned Lord can persist in repeating time and again this canard about the view being the Government's only.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: two pieces of evidence were given to the Select Committee. Both were purely anecdotal. One was given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham; the other by Professor Diana Woodhouse, who had asked one of her students which was the highest court in the land, and the student answered that it was the Court of Appeal rather than the Law Lords. If that is the best evidence that the Government can produce, heaven help us.

I cannot accept that moving the Law Lords from the House of Lords to the Guildhall and changing their name would improve in any way public understanding of what they are. Indeed, changing the name could make matters worse, because the public might think incorrectly that we were creating something new and different, like, for example, the United States Supreme Court or the Supreme Court of Ukraine. The public might well ask, "Why would any sensible government want to call the same people doing the same job by a different name?"

The third argument relied on by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice was that there ought to be better access for the public. That argument will be dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, when he moves his amendment. When the public want access in large numbers because of the importance of a case, there is no difficulty in making the necessary arrangements. I speak from personal experience, as some 100 or 200 members of the public were present at the Clegg and Pinochet cases. There is no reason why people wishing to visit the Law Lords on more ordinary occasions should not come in through the existing security entrance in Black Rod's Garden and take the lift to the first floor, which takes them to the very door of the committee room. All that would be needed would be a few signposts and perhaps some help from the friendly policemen who now occupy the Lord Chancellor's Court.

In his speech on 7 December the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice referred to the Bill as,

It is clear from the context that the noble and learned Lord was referring to the concordat, enshrined in Part 3 of the Bill, at pages 22 to 46. The concordat ensures the future independence of the judiciary. That is the point to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice rightly attached so much importance.
20 Dec 2004 : Column 1551

The independence of the judiciary and the importance of the concordat have nothing whatever to do with whether we should have a Supreme Court; they are completely separate issues that do not touch each other at any point. When the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice said that delay could cause the loss of the Bill and that we must not miss this window of opportunity to achieve a short-term advantage, I am not sure entirely what he had in mind. What short-term advantage do we seek to achieve? Surely he cannot mean that we should vote in favour of a Supreme Court for fear that, if the Government lose the vote, we will lose the Bill.

The future of the Law Lords and the creation of a Supreme Court are questions of great constitutional importance in their own right. They are much too important to be used simply as a lever in pursuit of some other end. The concordat is urgent business, as we all agree; the Supreme Court is not. Let us take those two separate issues step by step. Let us vote today on the merits of a Supreme Court. Such an important issue clearly requires a decision on the merits, uninfluenced by any consideration of what might happen if the vote goes against the Government. If the Government lose this vote, they can always seek to reverse the decision in the House of Commons. That will not delay the Bill. There is not the slightest reason that I can see why the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should seek to withdraw the Bill if he loses the vote. If that is his intention, perhaps he will tell us.

We are not forcing this decision on the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor; rather it is the other way round. The decision that we are taking today is being forced on us because of the extraordinary press announcement on 16 June 2003, when the Prime Minister said that he would put an end to the office of Lord Chancellor, to the Law Lords and to QCs. Two of those three have since been reprieved, at least temporarily. I invite the House today to reprieve the Law Lords, at least until after the election, so that the electorate can say whether or not they want those changes. I beg to move.

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead: My Lords, the principal question raised by this and related amendments is whether the Lords of Appeal should continue rather than be abolished, with in future the same people doing the same job but under a new name and in a different building, not 300 yards from here. Today I wish to offer the House briefly a serving Law Lord's perspective, separating the issues raised in this debate that seem important to me as a Lord of Appeal from those that have been raised but at best are of peripheral relevance.

I should first make plain that I do not speak for any other Law Lord. As to the attitude of others, the 12 Lords of Appeal remain equally divided on the desirability of a new Supreme Court. In forming my views I have perhaps one advantage over some of my brethren in seeking to achieve a degree of objectivity. If this part of the Bill is enacted, when the sun rises on the new Supreme Court, in 2008, I shall have reached the
20 Dec 2004 : Column 1552
compulsory retiring age for judges, so the change, if it occurs, will not affect me personally. My views are thus not tainted, consciously or unconsciously, by any impact that the proposed change would have on me personally; it will have no such impact.

Let me start with the up-to-date position regarding accommodation. Mention has been made of the Law Lords' existing accommodation in terms that might suggest that we have to make do with improvised, substandard facilities which desperately need improvement. Nothing could be further from reality. First, the accommodation for the oral hearing of appeals is provided by the committee rooms where appeals are normally heard; it is very different from the accommodation of an ordinary court. The Appellate Committee meets like other committees of your Lordships' House, with members seated on one side of a horseshoe-shaped table at the same floor level as those addressing the committee. By standards of courts of law, the Law Lords' hearings are conducted in a relatively informal way. We are not robed. No doubt that way of going about things is different from the accommodation provided and the procedures adopted in the court rooms of other Supreme Courts in the common-law world.

It might be expected that when the Law Lords are released from the restraints imposed by acting as a committee of your Lordships' House, they would want to seize the opportunity to make good those shortcomings. In future, they would conduct their affairs like other courts of law when they sit in their new court rooms in a new Supreme Court. Now they could look like a proper court.

Not a bit of it: far from wanting to change the existing layout and procedures, conducive as they are to informality and an atmosphere that promotes dialogue, the Lords of Appeal unanimously wish, in a new Supreme Court, to copy and reproduce the existing committee room layout and procedure. It is true that the proposed new accommodation would provide more seating for interested members of the public. But the additional space provided for that in current plans would not be huge. The availability of that additional space cannot be regarded as of much significance.

In common with most law courts, the occasions when members of the public wish to watch and listen to seemingly interminable legal argument are rare. Our audience ratings are not good. Most visitors to Committee Room 1 leave after a few minutes. When public interest is high—for instance, with the Pinochet appeal—it has usually been possible for the Appellate Committee to sit in an enlarged committee room. But that degree of public interest is exceptional. The need for more space for the public can all too easily be exaggerated.

As to the Law Lords' other facilities, each of us—in theory, we are 12, but for some years now we have effectively been 11 because my noble and learned friend Lord Saville has been engaged for a long time in
20 Dec 2004 : Column 1553
chairing the Bloody Sunday inquiry—is privileged to have his or her own room on the second floor west front. The rooms vary in size but even the smaller ones are adequate. They are bigger than some of the judges' rooms in the Royal Courts of Justice. With one exception, they command one of the finest views in London.

We have as much secretarial assistance as we need. We have four judicial assistants. That is a recent innovation. If more assistants are needed, no doubt they can be made available. We have access to any law books that we need. We have a conference room of our own. We have back-up administration provided by an excellent judicial office. The question of the Law Lords' present accommodation, if not a non-point, is a point of peripheral relevance on this proposed constitutional change.

Still on accommodation, I turn to an important point; namely, the building in which a new Supreme Court would be housed. The preferred option of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is the Middlesex Guildhall building. Perhaps I may say at once that I readily acknowledge and, indeed, would pay tribute to the unstinting efforts of the Department for Constitutional Affairs to adapt that building to a purpose for which it was not designed.

At an early stage in discussions a small working party of the Lords of Appeal, of which I was chairman, agreed the accommodation requirements of a new Supreme Court with officials of the department; namely, how many court rooms, judges' rooms and rooms for secretaries would be needed; what the minimum floor space of those rooms should be; and so on. I have no reason to doubt that the Middlesex Guildhall building would be able to meet that specification if the necessary listed building and other consents were forthcoming.

But there is a further overriding requirement, which is accepted on all sides: the building in which the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is housed should be a building that befits that role. It should be suitably prestigious, not for the greater glorification of the judges, but to symbolise and represent to all who see and use the building the importance of the rule of law in this country.

The site of the Middlesex Guildhall is superb. Unhappily, the same cannot be said of the building itself. No doubt, if the exterior were cleaned, it would look much better. But the main entrance to that Edwardian mock-Gothic building is hardly what one would choose as the perennial television backdrop for news items and interviews concerning activities of a newly created Supreme Court.

I wonder how many of your Lordships have ever been inside the building. The entrance hall, even when cleared of the present clutter, will always be ordinary and banal and at odds with the distinguished new purpose that the building is being called on to serve. The proposed three court rooms will retain some of their existing original furnishings, including opaque glass windows that are set with coats of arms of successive Lords Lieutenant of the county of Middlesex.
20 Dec 2004 : Column 1554

Those rooms will never rid themselves of the atmosphere of their original purpose—one room as the council chamber and the other two as intimidating criminal courts. Overall, in spite of the great cost envisaged, the interior of the building will always retain much of its heavy, original character. The net result could be only an expensive hybrid, with the building having, in part, the feel of its unexceptional origin and, in part and discordantly, the feel of a latter-day-come new Supreme Court, and with the whole lacking distinction. A new Supreme Court for this country surely deserves better.

I turn next to the much-debated question of separation of powers. Contrary to what has been suggested, there is no ground for thinking—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page