October 1, 2009 / 1:19 PM / 9 years ago

UK's highest court takes a leap into the future

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain’s venerable Law Lords, the pinnacle of the country’s legal establishment, started a new life on Thursday as the Supreme Court, symbolically apart from parliament and complete with TV access.

Eleven of the 12 judges who will make up the bench, resplendent in robes of black and gold, were sworn in at their new headquarters just opposite their old base in the House of Lords.

The Supreme Court replaces the House of Lords as the final court of appeal for nearly all cases in the United Kingdom in a move to give judges greater independence from Members of Parliament.

“This is a historic day ... the judiciary is now separate from the legislature and from the executive. That’s very important,” said Justice Minister Willy Bach.

For the first time, hearings will be open to the public and available for television broadcast.

“The highest court in the land, the court that decides cases of the highest importance that influences our lives, will be much more accessible to the general public,” Bach told BBC TV.

“Justice is going to be seen, justice is going to be understood.

Ten of the judges — nine men and one woman — had sat in the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords and simply moved from being Law Lords to Justices of the Supreme Court.

One other, senior judge Lord Clarke, was appointed directly to the court, with another judge to be sworn in at a later date to make up the full complement of 12.

The court building — a renovation of a former county courthouse dating from 1913 — has three modern courtrooms open to the public and public cafeterias.

Previously hearings of the Law Lords were closed to the public and only their judgments were televised.

But the creation of the new court has raised concerns it could cause a constitutional crisis.

Lord David Neuberger, a Law Lord due to be sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, turned down the appointment, saying he feared the new court will lead to excessive judicial power.

“The danger is that you muck around with a constitution like the British constitution at your peril because you do not know what the consequences of any change will be,” he told BBC radio last month.

The court hears its first appeal on Monday in a case involving the freezing of suspected al Qaeda assets.

Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Steve Addison

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