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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/05/18/nlaw18.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/05/18/ixhome.html&secureRefresh=true&_requestid=23304

Supreme court 'will lack independence'

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor The Telegraph May 19 2004

A leading law lord has said Government plans to create a supreme court in place of the House of Lords would leave the judges open to political interference. The comments, made by Lord Hope of Craighead in written evidence to a Lords Select Committee, were obtained yesterday by The Telegraph.

Lord Hope, Scotland's most senior judge until his promotion to the House of Lords in 1996, criticised Lord Falconer over the Constitution Secretary's comment in March that he had not heard any "principled argument" against separating the country's highest court from the legislature.

Lord Hope noted that responses to the Government's consultation paper - such as his own - which went outside the paper's assumption that there was to be such a court, "were ignored and not even acknowledged" when Lord Falconer's department published its summary of responses.

Lord Hope said the Government was confusing the independence of the judiciary, which was a fundamental principle at the heart of the rule of law, with separation of the powers, a principle that had not been adopted in this country.

"If a principled argument against separation is needed, it can be expressed in the phrases 'value for money' and 'holding on to what is good'," he said.

At present, the law lords' running costs were met by the Parliamentary vote, over which the Treasury had no control. This insulated the law lords "almost entirely from interference by the executive" and provided a "powerful protection against the risk of executive action designed simply to reduce costs and achieve savings".

Such funding arrangements put them in a stronger position than the judges of a future supreme court, Lord Hope said.

"At present, the executive cannot lay a finger on the work that the law lords do. In an uncertain world, this is a vital guarantee of judicial independence where it matters most which our history has bequeathed to us, and I do not think that it should be given up."

Lord Hope's comments came as Lord Falconer denied a newspaper report that he was having to put his plans for a supreme court into "cold storage" for up to 10 years while the search continued for a suitable building.

The front-runner is still said to be Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square, although officials insisted that another building was still under consideration.

While the law lords are split on the desirability of a supreme court, they all agree that Middlesex Guildhall, the old county council offices which are now used as a Crown Court, would be unsuitable without major re-building.

The rooms are not big enough for up to nine judges to continue sitting in a semi-circle on the same level as counsel. The law lords would no longer share a corridor, enabling them to swap ideas informally.

Although it is a listed building, changes could be made with the consent of English Heritage. But rebuilding the entire structure behind the existing facade, the only solution short of total demolition that would meet the law lords' needs, is seen as prohibitively expensive - especially as the Government wants the court to be financed by other litigants.

Lord Falconer insisted yesterday that the Supreme Court should be established before a building was ready, with transitional arrangements a matter for the House of Lords authorities. But the law lords are digging in their heels against any change of status until they can move into their new home.

A spokesman for Lord Falconer's department accepted yesterday that concessions might have to be made on both sides but firmly denied that the Government would accept an amendment to its Bill postponing its proposals until a building was ready.