19 November 2009

Supreme Court UK: Unionist project

I suspect lawyers of a certain vintage will find the transformation difficult. For years, it has been House of Lords decision which have been at the apex of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s judicial structures and the court of last domestic resort for Scots civil appeals. Now, at last, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has come alive. The old Law Lords have donned their new-weaved robes, invaded the Middlesex Guildhall and set to their jurisprudential tasks. Born of tripartite constitutional theory and a borrowed American obsession with the notion of executive-legislative-judicial division, it was always predictable that other political projects would attempt snag themselves on the long court robes of this “clarifying” measure, pursuing their own ends while change is in the air.

The aspect I wanted to raise in particular is how moving from the quiet institution of the House of Lords – composed of a mixed membership, including Scots lawyers – has been seized as a symbolical moment for a new Unionism. From a legalistic perspective, the Court’s claims to supremacy are partial at best. In the United Kingdom’s plural jurisdictions, for instance, criminal appeals cannot wend their way south. From a Scots devolutionist perspective, perhaps the most significant aspect of the new Court’s jurisdiction is its ability to hear devolution minutes under the Scotland Act 1998 and on the limits (and potential legislative and ministerial excesses) in exercising powers devolved. It is, therefore, an unequal sort of supremacy the court, as constituted, can exercise.

What interested me in particular, however, is how the architectural and legislative shifts which moved the Law Lords off their red benches and into designated judicial space has accumulated a Unionist semiotics which are strongly political. Glance at the symbol of the Court, left. English rose, Welsh leek, Scots thistle and Northern Irish flax all mingle at the roots, creating a complete circle. About this verdant knot, omega circumscribes, apparently referencing the Supreme Court’s finality. Designed by Yvonne Holton, Herald Painter at the Court of Lord Lyon in Scotland, I think it’s a handsome enough symbol. In context, it is, however, also a highly political account of the new judicial body – the institution of the Supreme Court being re-imagined through a symbolically unionist lens. Unlike the old House of Lords, this imagery explicitly ties Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in.

The court also has a pop-art carpet (right) designed by Sir Peter Blake which replicates the idea of the court as representative of jurisdictions and nations united. Of course, you might say – its just a dirty bit of carpet and a magic picture. We can pull up the former or paint out the later. Or like old claims to be King of England Ireland and France – just muddle along and hope nobody notices. My point is that it is interesting, among all the alternative choices of symbolism – one can think of innumerable images appealing to neutral justice and its scales of judgement - that a directly unionist image and account of its character was selected for this new court.

Andrew Motion, ex poet laureate, precisely replicated the same themes in his pretty trite poem, which is now chipped into the court’s walls…

Tides tumbled sand through seas long-lost to earth;
Sand hardened into stone – stone cut, then brought
To frame the letter of four nations’ laws
And square the circle of a single court.

Here Justice sits and lifts her steady scales
Within the Abbey’s sight and Parliament’s
But independent of them both. And bound
By truth of principle and argument.

A thousand years of judgment stretch behind –
The weight of rights and freedoms balancing
With fairness and with duty to the world:
The clarity time-honoured thinking brings.

New structures but an old foundation stone:
The mind of Justice still at liberty
Four nations separate but linked as one:
The light of reason falling equally.

Stir into the pot this fact. On 15/12/2008, the Scottish Government announced that Professor Neil Walker of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law is undertaking an analysis about cutting the civil appeal from the Court of Session to London. There are cogent reasons for this in terms of legal understanding. If law is something one knows about – how appropriate is it for the final deciders on questions of Scots civil law to be English lawyers, with perhaps only the most passing and incidental of knowledge of how things are imagined by legal souls north of the border? Professor Walker has been asked to report back by 01/11/09, but I’ve not heard a peep about the position he takes or the argument he makes yet. Cutting the civil appeal stream to this new Supreme Court would (probably) require Westminster legislation. In which context, even if reasonable grounds so to do are suggested by Walker, given the choice to turn the Supreme Court into a claim about the permanence of Union, I’d be astounded if the Westminster powers let this happen.

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