Britain's new Supreme Court to cost £14m a year

Ministers promise greater 'clarity', but critics question whether changes will help
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The Independent Online

It began as a judicial complaint about the inadequate lavatory facilities in the House of Lords and ended as a central plank in New Labour's constitutional reform project.

Next month, Britain's new Supreme Court will open for business at a cost of £56m, six years after Tony Blair surprised many judges when he declared the House of Lords judicial committee rooms no longer reflected the proper separation of powers between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary.

Some law lords complained that they had not been consulted about the new court and that the plans were a product of political vanity rather than a properly thought-out constitutional reform.

Nevertheless Mr Blair, aided by his soon-to-be Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, pushed the scheme through.

Yesterday Jenny Rowe, the chief executive of the Supreme Court, estimated that the annual running costs of the law lords' new home, the refurbished Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square, would be £14m. For those judges who still harbour concerns about the bathroom arrangements these costs include state-of-the-art showers.

The court will take over from the appellate committee of the House of Lords as the final criminal court of appeal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Grade II* listed building houses three court rooms, a library, office and gallery space. It has been completely revamped to create an "atmosphere of learned discussion" as the law lords requested.

The design for the building's carpets was created by Sir Peter Blake, who designed The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Inside the library are glass panels etched with lines from the Magna Carta, and famous quotations and obiter chosen by the law lords.

Two benches outside the front of the court, which sits on the west side of Parliament Square, are inscribed with a poem by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion. These will also serve as a substantial barrier to any suicide bomb threat and were brought into place shortly after the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport.

For the first time, some proceedings will be broadcast live, allowing the public to view the inner workings of the court.

Ministers say the changes will provide "clarity" to the country's constitutional arrangements.

Justice minister Lord Willy Bach told journalists yesterday that the change would improve the visibility and accessibility of the court

"It will bring about greater clarity in our constitutional arrangements, and create a clear and physical separation for the Judiciary from the Legislature and the Executive," he said.

But critics question whether the change was necessary, given that the judges will have no new powers.

And last week Justice Neuberger, a former law lord who declined to move to the new institution and was appointed Master of the Rolls, warned it could have dangerous unintended consequences.

Creating the Supreme Court amounted to "frivolous" tinkering with the Constitution and appeared to have been dreamt up "over a glass of whisky" by the former prime minister Tony Blair, he said.

The court will consider its first case on 5 October, when the Government will face a challenge under the Human Rights Act over powers to confiscate money from alleged terrorists.