October 05, 2009

Judges in UK’s Privy Council frustrated by Caribbean cases
Source: Turks & Caicos Sun
Published: Monday, October 5, 2009

The judges who sit on Britain’s distinguished Privy Council have indicated that they are frustrated hearing cases from the Caribbean because they are too time-consuming.

According to an article in the Financial Times, top judges charged with a landmark modernisation of the British legal system will be diverted from their task by an unlikely and perverse duty: serving on a court that is one of the country’s fustiest jurisprudential relics.

The article noted that Lord Phillips, president of the new Supreme Court, said he was searching for ways to curb the “disproportionate” time he and his fellow senior justices spent hearing legal appeals from independent Commonwealth countries to the Privy Council in London.

The concerns highlight how the Supreme Court’s creation is a quintessentially British constitutional fudge, separating the judiciary from parliament for the first time but leaving intact a sister chamber widely seen as a post-imperial anachronism.

Lord Phillips said in an interview that he was concerned that the judges who will staff the Supreme Court from next month would – as during their previous incarnations as House of Lords justices – end up spending as much as 40 per cent of their working hours on Privy Council business.

He said: “It is a huge amount of time. I personally would like to see it reduced. It’s disproportionate.”

The president questioned whether some Privy Council cases, which have ranged from Jamaican death row appeals to fights over press freedom in Bermuda, needed to be heard by a panel of five of Britain’s most senior judges.

He said he was looking to take some of the pressure off the Supreme Court by drafting in Court of Appeal judges to help out, although he added that “in an ideal world” former Commonwealth countries would stop using the privy Council and set up their own final courts of appeal instead.

A creature of Britain’s 19th century colonial pomp, the Privy Council judicial committee is now used as a London-subsidised top court by about 15 independent nations, most of them small islands in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Many independent observers say this is both an ideological stain and a financial drain on the newly-created Supreme Court.

The Council judicial committee shares both the court’s handsome Parliament Square headquarters and access to the dozen judges whose £200,000-a-year day job is supposed to be resolving Britain’s most important criminal and commercial cases.

Robert Hazell, director of The Constitution Unit at University College London, said it was a “minor public scandal” that judges in the country’s top court spent almost half their time on business “of no interest to anyone in the UK”.

He said: “If they didn’t spend time in the Privy Council, the justices of the Supreme Court could hear almost twice as many cases coming up from the UK legal system.”

The Ministry of Justice declined to respond Lord Phillips’ comments, saying that how he ran the Supreme Court was a matter for him.

According to the Financial Times article, as the new Supreme Court opens for business to much fanfare, five of its 12 justices will be busy with something else: a land dispute in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The next day, the judicial quintet - hired at about £200,000 a year to decide on some of Britain's biggest cases in the business world and beyond - is due to be embroiled in a dispute involving Jamaica's financial regulator.

The schedule could hardly be a better illustration of why Lord Phillips, Supreme Court president, is worried his cadre of elite judges will see their time sapped by a series of lawsuits that are essentially ghosts from Britain's imperial past.

The Turks and Jamaican cases are part of the roster of the Privy Council's judicial committee, an archaic body that sits uncomfortably with the reformed top court Britain is about to unveil to the world. The committee is - as Lord Phillips puts it with lawyerly understatement - a "very unusual court", reform of which is "easy to postulate but not necessarily easy to achieve".

Created in 1833 - the same year as slavery was outlawed in the West Indies and other colonial outposts - the committee is now the highest court of appeal for a clutch of British overseas territories and independent Commonwealth nations in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Lord Phillips says the problem is intensified because there is often little filtering of committee cases before they reach London, meaning that Britain's top justices are sometimes hearing lawsuits that wouldn't even have reached the Court of Appeal if they'd originated domestically.

An even bigger dilemma is that - in what some might see as a tiny morsel of poetic justice for imperial oppression - Britain cannot unilaterally abolish the judicial committee without the consent of the former colonies using it.

While there have been efforts to launch a senior Caribbean court to take on the kind of cases that reach the Privy Council, some countries - perhaps understandably - don't seem in a great hurry to end their access to a source of pro bono judicial expertise in London.

Robert Hazell, director of The Constitution Unit at University College London, says the nations using the judicial committee should at the very least pay their way. He says: "Why should we provide these services for free? At the moment it doesn't cost these countries a penny."

The criticisms of the committee come amid attacks on the wider role of the Privy Council, which has its roots in the Norman era and is seen by some as an instrument of arbitrary executive power. If the council's judicial arm is seen to be undermining the work of Britain's top court, then the pressure may yet grow further for broader constitutional change than the government has so far allowed

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