UNITED KINGDOM

New Supreme Court spells end of Law Lords

The judges of the UK's new Supreme Court, designed to replace the Law Lords (pictured), were sworn in on Thursday. The court's creation is a key step in reforming the UK's unwritten constitution, a process launched under former PM Tony Blair.

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AFP - British constitutional history was made Thursday as judges in a new Supreme Court were sworn in, replacing the House of Lords as Britain's highest appeal tribunal.

Ending an ancient judicial quirk, 11 new Justices took their oaths of office in the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, housed in a gothic building just across from the Houses of Parliament.

"This is the last step in the separation of powers in this country," said Lord Nicholas Phillips, president of the new court which will also break ground by allowing live television coverage for the first time.

"We have come to it fairly gently and gradually, but we have come to the point where the judges are completely separated from the legislature and executive," he told the BBC, referring to parliament and the government.

Since 1876, the role of final court of appeal for England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been performed by the Law Lords, a House of Lords committee made up of top judges.

Before then, it was the job of ordinary peers who contemporary commentators said were often unfamiliar with the law -- and keener on drinking at gentlemen's clubs than hearing complex cases.

Although the Law Lords' independence was not in question, in recent years ministers and many top lawyers came to believe that separating the judiciary, parliament and the executive was important for the sake of clarity.

The move was decided by the Labour government which, when Tony Blair was prime minister, also made reforms such as cutting the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords and devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In fact the new Supreme Court Justices are the same men who had until now been called Law Lords -- minus their wigs, but still keeping their robes, in which they processed across Parliament Square on Thursday.

They will remain members of the House of Lords but will be disqualified from sitting or voting there until they retire from the Supreme Court. Newly appointed judges will not have a seat in parliament.

But their new home will be miles away from the fustiness of the Lords' red leather benches, often occupied by dozing peers.

Its courtrooms are light, spacious and have plenty of access for curious members of the public, plus carpets designed by pop artist Peter Blake, who was behind the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover.

Before Thursday's ceremony the new court's president said: "The change is one of transparency. It's going to be very much easier for the public to come to our hearings.

"I would hope that the court is still sitting in 100 years time and that when people look back at this step that they see it as a very significant step in the constitution of this country."

The new tribunal will cost 14 million pounds (22 million dollars, 15 million euros) a year to run, including the salaries of the judges and the upkeep of the building.

Critics question the value of the court, and the price. "This is a huge bill for an institution that many think isn't really necessary," said Mark Wallace, campaign director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

"Even if you accept the premise of a separate Supreme Court, it would still have been cheaper to host it one of the many public buildings that the taxpayer already funds."

And he noted that, since Britain is a member of the European Union, even the Supreme Court's rulings can be overturned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"The irony is that despite all the money and all the pomp, it won't really be supreme -- European law will still overrule it," he said.

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