Last week, the Supreme Court Brexit case was heard, and the judges are now considering their verdicts.
Many people have asked us why the triggering of Article 50 is a question that involves the courts, so we asked Kenneth Armstrong, Professor of European law at the University of Cambridge to explain what the Supreme Court is, and what it’s got to do with Brexit.
In this post, Professor Armstrong explains what the Supreme Court is and why it exists. On Friday, he will examine the Supreme Court’s role in the Brexit debate – watch this space!
The Supreme Court
The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has only been in existence since 2009. Prior to that, a special committee of the House of Lords composed of senior judges represented the highest court in England. But as the House of Lords is also one half of the UK’s Parliament – the House of Commons is the other half – it was decided to make a clearer separation of the political functions of the House of Lords from the judicial function of interpreting law which would now be done by the Supreme Court. This idea that political and judicial functions should be kept separate is sometimes known as the ‘separation of powers’. The independence of the judiciary from politics is an important aspect not just of the separation of powers but also the ‘rule of law’. The rule of law means that politicians cannot do things outside of the law, and an independent judiciary is important to ensure that the power of the state is exercised within a framework of law.
The Supreme Court is composed of 12 judges. There are currently only 11 Supreme Court judges as there is a vacancy. The Court can be composed of different numbers of judges depending on the legal significance of the case. At a minimum there must be 3 judges but in practice most cases are heard before 7 or 9 judges and sometimes 11 judges. There must always be an odd number in case there is a division of opinion between the judges. The Court has a President and a Deputy President.