The UK Supreme Court

Erica Jones reports on The UK Supreme Court. What does it do and how does it impact the lives of ordinary people?

The UK Supreme Court is based in Westminster, London across from the Houses of Parliament. It’s a relatively new institution – it was formed in 2009. In this article, we answer some common questions about the court.

What does the court do?

It is the highest court in the United Kingdom and serves as the final court of appeal for civil cases and criminal cases in every country except Scotland (at the High Court of Justiciary). The cases must be of public importance. It also serves as the final court of appeal for some commonwealth countries and British overseas territories.

How many Justices are there?

There are 12 Justices on The UK Supreme Court.

How are they appointed?

Firstly, only Justices with the following qualifications are considered:

  • Applicants must have held high judicial office for at least two years. (‘High judicial office’ is defined to include High Court Judges of England and Wales, and of Northern Ireland; Court of Appeal Judges of England and Wales, and of Northern Ireland; and Judges of the Court of Session).
  • Alternatively, applicants must satisfy the judicial-appointment eligibility condition on a 15-year basis, or have been a qualifying practitioner for at least 15 years.
  • A person satisfies the judicial-appointment eligibility condition on a 15-year basis if he has been a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales, or barrister in England and Wales, for at least 15 years; and has been gaining experience in law during the post-qualification period.
  • A person is a qualifying practitioner if he is an advocate in Scotland or a solicitor entitled to appear in the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary; or he is a member of the Bar of Northern Ireland or a solicitor of the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland.

The Justice Secretary will then convene a special selection commission comprising the President of The Supreme Court along with several other members. The commission will then consult several senior judges before making a recommendation to the Justice Secretary. The Secretary of State will then consult the same people consulted by the commission and, if all is well, they will recommend the nominee to the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister agrees then the Queen will appoint the nominee.

How does the court make its rulings?

While there are 12 members of the Court, they rarely if ever sit together. Cases are heard by an odd number of Justices (usually five but occasionally nine) to ensure that a decision can be reached.

How similar is the court to US Supreme Court?

As the US has a written constitution, the justices on The Supreme Court of the United States determine whether cases have breached the constitution. In the UK, the Court serves a different role as there is no constitution and Parliament is supreme.

In addition, the US Court has nine judges whereas the UK has 12. A US Supreme Court Justice can serve their term forever while a UK Justice must retire at 70.

What are some famous cases?

During Brexit, the UKSC heard several cases related to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The most famous case related to the government’s attempt to close down Parliament in order to move Brexit forward. The decision was controversial and led to many negative newspaper headlines.

In 2021, the Court ruled that Uber drivers were employees of the ride-sharing app and Uber was contracting directly with passengers. This has led to an increase in fares for passengers.

Erica Jones is a writer and researcher for The Legal English School.

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