The House of Lords is the highest court in the land - the supreme
court of appeal. It acts as the final court on points of law for
the whole of the United Kingdom in civil cases and for England,
Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases. Its decisions bind
all courts below.
Conditions for Appeal to the House
The right to appeal to the House is ancient but the conditions
under which an appeal can be made have become closely defined
over the last 100 years. Each category of appeal is subject to
statutory provisions which provide for the granting of leave to
appeal and set out time limits within which leave to appeal may
be sought from the House. In certain kinds of appeal the statutes
require a certificate from the court from which the appeal is
to be brought, e.g., civil appeals are governed by the Appellate
Jurisdiction Act 1876 with additional provision for England and
Wales in the Administration of Justice (Appeals) Act 1934.
Courts from Which the House of Lords Hears Appeals
The House hears appeals from:
- The Court of Appeal (England and Wales and Northern Ireland)
(civil and criminal appeals);
- The Court of Session in Scotland (civil);
- A Divisional Court of the Queens Bench Division of
the High Court in England and Wales and the High Court in Northern
- The Courts-Martial Appeals Court.
The House may also hear certain kinds of civil cases brought direct
from the High Court in England and Wales and Northern Ireland
under the leapfrog procedure.
Leave to Appeal
If the court below grants leave to appeal to the House of Lords
the appeal may be presented direct to the House. If the court
below refuses leave, a party may seek leave to appeal from the
House itself. A petition for leave must be
presented to the House within one month (fourteen days in criminal
matters) from the making of the order of the lower court. Every
admissible petition is referred to an Appeal Committee consisting
of three Lords of Appeal. An Appeal Committee decides whether
a petition should be refused or leave provisionally allowed.
If provisionally allowed, objections will be invited from the
Respondents to the petition (the other party involved in the case)
and the Committee can then decide whether to refuse or grant leave
or the petition can be referred for hearing and the decision made
after both sides have put forward their arguments.
The Law Lords
The modern form of appeal to the House was established by the
Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 when provision was made for the
creation of Law Lords (the first life peerages). These peers,
formally known as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, also sit in the
House like other members. They are required to have held high
judicial office for at least 2 years or to have been practising
as barristers for at least 15 years.
Today there may be up to 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and they
are usually appointed from the Lords Justices of Appeal, or less
frequently, from judges of the High Court. Two are normally from
the Scottish Bench. In addition, former Lords of Appeal in Ordinary,
former Lord Chancellors and holders of other high judicial office
are entitled to sit as Law Lords under the Act but in practice
do so infrequently.
The Judicial Pensions and Retirements Act 1993, which came into
force in 1995, lowered the age of retirement of Law Lords who
had been appointed to high judicial office after the coming into
force of the Act from 75 and 70. It also provided that no one
except the Lord Chancellor may sit judicially in the House of
Lords beyond the age of 75.
Sittings of the Court - When and Where
The Law Lords sit from Monday to Thursday throughout the law terms.
The Law Lords may sit not only on days when Parliament is itself
sitting for public business, but also during periods of parliamentary
recess, prorogation and even (by special dispensation) during
a dissolution. The House can be recalled specifically for judicial
The Law Lords used to sit daily in the Chamber of the House before
public business began at 4.15 p.m. After bomb damage to the Chamber
of the Commons during the Second World War changes were made.
The Law Lords were moved temporarily to a Committee
room to escape the noise of building repairs and were constituted
into an Appellate Committee for this purpose.
This Committee first met on 26th May 1948. The experiment proved
so successful that the arrangement continued after the repairs
had been completed and in 1960 authority was given for a second
Appellate Committee to be appointed. In modern times, although
the Law Lords occasionally hear appeals sitting as the House,
in the chamber, the majority of appeals are referred to, and heard
by, Appellate Committees.
For the purposes of hearing appeals an Appellate Committee usually
consists of five Law Lords. Sittings take place in Committee
Room 1 and, when necessary, Committee room 2. Final judgment on
an appeal is always given in the Chamber, usually on a Thursday
afternoon. This serves as a reminder that, despite modern practice,
it is the High Court of Parliament that determines appeals.
Proceedings are less formal than the Courts below. The five Law
Lords sit in a semi-circle round a horseshoe shaped table and
the Senior Law Lord present presides as Chairman. They do not
wear robes but counsel appear in wig and gown at the Bar across
the centre of the room at which stands a lectern. Counsel for
the Appellant(s) is heard first, then counsel for the Respondent(s)
and finally counsel for the Appellant(s) in reply. There are
frequent questions from the Law Lords as arguments are developed.
The length of hearing varies but the average is just over two
and a half days.
Once the hearing has been concluded the Law Lords discuss the
case. Very occasionally they will recall counsel to tell them
what the result of the appeal will be. Nevertheless, this intimation
has no formal effect until it has been encapsulated in the Judgment
of the House. By far the most usual arrangement is for judgment
to take place a few weeks after the hearing, generally on Thursdays
at 2 p.m. in the Chamber of the House. Sittings for judgments
are full meetings of the House and other peers may attend although,
by convention, only Law Lords take part in the proceedings. The
Judicial Clerk summons counsel and other interested parties to
the bar of the House and the presiding Law Lord sits on the woolsack
Law Lords give their opinions in the form of speeches to the House.
Each Law Lord states that for the reasons he has given in his
prepared speech he would either allow or dismiss the appeal.
The House, having agreed to the report of the Appellate Committee,
then makes the orders which are the judgment of the House. The
full speeches are made available to the public in printed form
or via the internet.
After the House has given judgment a written order is prepared
by the Judicial Office and signed by the Clerk of the Parliaments
who is the Registrar of the Court. The Order is sent to the successful
- Current list of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and other Lords
of Appeal (not disqualified by the Judicial Pension and Retirement
Act) in order of judicial precedence.
- Transcripts of judgments (Fees payable) are available from
the Judicial Office.
Telephone: 0171-219 3111 Fax: 0171-219 2476
Since October 1996 this information has also been available on
Judgments are available by 4.30 p.m. on the day of the judgment
|H O U S E of L O R D S|
S W 1 A 0 P W
020 7219 3107