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Roles and Responsibilities: Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

From 1 October 2009

From 1 October 2009, the Supreme Court replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords as the highest court in the United Kingdom. It hears appeals on arguable points of law of the greatest public importance, for the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases, and for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases.

It also hears cases on devolved matters under the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1988 and the Government of Wales Act 2006. This jurisdiction was transferred to the Supreme Court from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The Supreme Court sits in the former Middlesex Guildhall, on the western side of Parliament Square. Its twelve judges are known as the Law Lords.

The Supreme Court was established to achieve a complete separation between the United Kingdom’s senior Judges and the Upper House of Parliament, emphasising the independence of the Law Lords and increasing the transparency between Parliament and the courts.

As an appeal court, the Supreme Court cannot consider a case unless a relevant order has been made in a lower court. In civil cases, an appeal to the Supreme Court can only be made on a point of law. Its judgments bind all the lower courts.

It hears appeals from the following courts in each jurisdiction:

England and Wales

  • The Court of Appeal, Civil Division (NMWM02130)
  • The Court of Appeal, Criminal Division
  • (in some limited cases) the High Court


Northern Ireland

  • The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland (NMWM02140)
  • (in some limited cases) the High Court.

Prior to 1 October 2009

Prior to 1 October 2009 the House of Lords was the highest court in the land. It acted 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 for criminal cases. Its decisions are still binding on all the lower courts.

Judgment was given by putting questions to the House, in the Chamber. This acted as a reminder that it was the High Court of Parliament that determined appeals by judgment of the House.

The House of Lords is part of Parliament. However, in most democracies the judiciary is separate from the legislature. For this reason the Government legislated to establish the United Kingdom Supreme Court which is constitutionally and physically separate from Parliament.