Senior judge warns over new Supreme Court

The creation of a Supreme Court for the UK verges on "frivolous" tinkering with the constitution which may have dangerous unintended consequences, a senior judge warned today.

Former Law Lord Lord Neuberger, who declined to move to the Supreme Court and has instead been appointed Master of the Rolls, said the far-reaching change to the legal system appeared to have been dreamt up "over a glass of whisky" by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

And the Lord Chancellor who oversaw the establishment of the court, Lord Falconer, said he expected senior judges to be "bolder" in their protection of the liberties of the individual than they were when they formed part of the Houses of Parliament.

The Supreme Court, based in the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square, will next month become the highest court of appeal in the UK judicial system, a role formerly played by the Law Lords sitting as a committee of the House of Lords.

In the BBC Radio 4 programme Top Dogs, being broadcast today, Lord Falconer predicted that the change of venue will lead to a change in the way the judges do their work.

"I believe that having a separate place for the UK judiciary to have its home will mean that the Supreme Court will be bolder in vindicating both the freedoms of individuals and, coupled with that, being willing to take on the executive," said Lord Falconer.

But Lord Neuberger warned of unintended consequences: "To change... the Law Lords into the Supreme Court as a result of what appears to have been a last-minute decision over a glass of whisky seems to me to verge on the frivolous.

"The danger is you muck around with a constitution at your peril, because you don't know what the consequences of any change will be."

Mr Blair's announcement six years ago of plans to create a Supreme Court surprised many judges, who had not been consulted in advance.

Then-Home Secretary David Blunkett told the programme it might have been better to consult the judges, but that this was not thought to be possible because the change was opposed by then Lord Chancellor Lord (Derry) Irvine, Mr Blair's mentor from his days as a barrister. Mr Blair announced the replacement of Lord Irvine by Lord Falconer at the same time as he unveiled plans for a Supreme Court.

Mr Blunkett said: "How could we (consult) with Derry sitting there? He did think he was Tony's foster-uncle and, given his history back in chambers, he was invincible. But we all find out in time that we are not."

However, Lord Turnbull, who was Cabinet Secretary at the time plans for the Supreme Court were first developed, rejected suggestions that the change was drawn up in a slapdash fashion.

"It has been alleged that this was all thought up on the back of a fag packet," Lord Turnbull told the programme. "This is entirely wrong.

"The Prime Minister was clear that this was something he wanted to do and he also knew that it would be very difficult to achieve with Lord Irvine in place, because he was not enthusiastic about it."

Baroness Hale, one of the new Supreme Court judges, backed the creation of the new court: "I don't think we should be part of the Houses of Parliament.

"They do an important job. We do an important job. I prefer to do it in something which is known to the world to be a court, properly designed as a court, open to the public as a court, communicating as a court communicates."