Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 16:37 UK

Inside the UK Supreme Court

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

The highest court in the UK has confirmed it will allow its proceedings to be televised when it begins hearing cases later this year. The decision to broadcast the UK Supreme Court's proceedings, when requested by the media, came as the government confirmed the institution would open on time in October.

The carpet at the Supreme Court, designed by Sir Peter Blake
12 Supreme Justices
Special appointments commission
Justices approved by the Queen
Justice secretary is consulted, but no veto

The decision to televise events from inside the court's three chambers is a first for England and Wales. There have been experiments with television in Scotland where the law is different - but heavy restrictions remain in place on most hearings.

The BBC has been inside the court, which represents a significant constitutional change for the UK, to see how it will operate.

The court's creation came out of a decision by the government to separate the judicial and law-making functions of the House of Lords, a long-standing constitutional anomaly in the UK.

Until now, senior judges were ennobled to hear cases of major public importance in the House of Lords itself.

In effect, this meant they could vote because they were peers - but had a second role as the highest judges in the land. In practice, most Law Lords did not take part in political debates and rarely, if ever, voted.

But from October, the 12 Law Lords who currently hear appeals in Parliament will become the first Justices of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's emblem
New court signals new era for judiciary

Their senior member, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, will become the first President of the Supreme Court.

These leading judges will then no longer participate in the House of Lords' business, although they will retain the title that came with their peerage.

Key reform

This is the key reform behind the Supreme Court.

Their move across Parliament Square to their new headquarters finally and conclusively separates the different arms of the British state: Parliament will make the law on behalf of the electorate - and the judges will be charged, if asked to, with assessing if it is being fairly applied.

And while devolution has shifted a lot of law-making to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the three legal and political systems will come together again in hearings before the Supreme Court.

For civil cases from across the UK, and criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it will act as final court of appeal.

The court will also house the judicial committee of the privy council.

The opening of the Supreme Court in October is a major constitutional milestone and a change that will help build the country's future
Lord Bach

The decisions taken by the justices will affect subsequent judgements in the lower courts across the UK.

In this sense, the court will operate along similar lines to the US Supreme Court which, at national level, issues critical judgements from Washington on major issues, despite individual states retaining the responsibility for a lot of their local laws.

Justice minister Lord Bach said: "The opening of the Supreme Court in October is a major constitutional milestone and a change that will help build the country's future."

Open access

Jenny Rowe, chief executive of the court, said that there had been detailed negotiations with broadcasters over access to live proceedings. She anticipated interest in televised judgements on major cases.

"We will film everything ourselves," she said. "If the broadcasters want to show it, we will make it available."

Outside view of the supreme court
The outside of the former Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court will be largely unchanged

Lord Bach said that alongside the decision on filming sessions, the new Supreme Court building had been designed to be as open to the public as possible. Part of the public areas will include a permanent exhibition on the history of the British judiciary and officials are planning to bring school children in to watch the law being made.

"In the House of Lords at the moment it's not possible for members of the public to go and watch the highest court in the land do its work," said Lord Bach. "They will be able to see what happens here. It's important that there isn't a disconnect between the justice system and the people it's meant to serve."

Building refurbished

The £59m Supreme Court project has seen the complete renovation of the former Middlesex Guildhall which sits opposite the Houses of Parliament and comprises three court rooms.

Two of the courtrooms have retained the traditional original Victorian-Gothic fittings, while the third has been completely modernised and refitted and opened to light.

Large areas of the building are open to the public, including a basement café and the planned education facilities.

Up to nine justices will be able to sit at a crescent-shaped desk during hearings. Lawyers for each side in a case will present their cases opposite them while their clients, the public and journalists have space to sit a little further back.

At present, five Law Lords are typically appointed to give their opinions on each case. The most important cases are heard by nine judges. In recent years these have included the attempt to extradite General Pinochet to Spain, challenges to counter-terrorism legislation and the hunting ban.

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