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Monday, 13 December 2010

A Lord but not a Peer

Another blog for Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here.

This morning the Supreme Court made the following announcement:

"Her Majesty The Queen has signed a warrant declaring that every Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will in future be styled as ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’, to ensure that all Justices of the Court are described and addressed in a similar manner.

The announcement means that Sir John Dyson, the most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, who is not a Life Peer and was appointed from the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, will now be styled Lord Dyson.

Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, said: “One of the hallmarks of the new Court is that, in order to ensure the complete separation of the Court from the legislature, new Justices are not made Life Peers, and that those who are already Life Peers are unable to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

“However, the appointment of colleagues who are not Life Peers has inevitably led to some confusion about the manner in which they should be described and addressed. This announcement is a welcome move to help us introduce consistency and avoid the complications of a variety of titles being employed.”

Today’s announcement means that the courtesy title will be conferred upon new Justices for life once they are sworn in at the Supreme Court. The wife of a Justice will be described as “Lady…”

One has to say that it is rather surprising that no-one seems to have thought of this potential confusion beforehand. I had assumed that they were simply going to allow the inconsistency to continue for such time as life peers remained on the bench, which given the mandatory retirement age would not have been more than a few years. The confusion presumably did not occur during actual hearings, since all judges in the High Court and above are referred to in court as “my Lord” or “my Lady”. Moreover, there are already judges with different titles throughout the various tiers, including County Court judges sitting as judges of the High Court, barristers sitting as Deputy High Court Judges, High Court judges sitting in the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division and retired judges sitting as “Sir (name)”.

It should be recalled that, according to Lord Phillips, the reason for the Supreme Court’s creation was not that the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords was in fact insufficiently independent, but that it was perceived to be so. Creating Lords who are not peers in fact, but who will doubtless be perceived as such by many, seems inconsistent with that purpose.

A further, and unfortunate, perception to which the announcement may give rise is that insufficient planning went into the creation of the Court. The potential for confusion during the short number of years that Law Lords continued to sit on the Court was clearly foreseeable. To bring about an abrupt change some months after Sir John (now Lord) Dyson was appointed rather creates the impression of a work in progress than a carefully crafted new constitutional institution.

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