Scottish courts and the law
Scottish courts and the law

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Scottish courts and the law

1.4 The UK Supreme Court

The highest appeal court in civil matters is not shown in Figure 2. Appeals can be made from the Court of Session to the UK Supreme Court. This is a UK wide court which has the powers to hear certain appeals from courts in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. To appeal to the UK Supreme Court, a Scottish appellant (person making the appeal) needs to obtain permission to appeal from the Court of Session. If this is refused then in certain cases the UK Supreme Court can grant permission.

The UK Supreme Court also hears cases that involve devolution issues. It can hear cases which consider whether the Scottish government (as a devolved executive) and Scottish Parliament (as the legislative in Scotland) are acting within their powers (this includes questions as to whether they are acting within their powers and responsibilities as set out in the Scotland Act 1998 as amended, whether they are acting in compliance with the ECHR). It can also hear cases which consider whether they have failed to fulfil their duties. While such cases are rare, they have far-reaching significance.

Devolution cases can reach the UK Supreme Court in three ways:

  • through a reference from someone who can exercise relevant statutory powers such as the Advocate General, whether or not the issue is the subject of litigation
  • through an appeal from certain higher courts in Scotland
  • through a reference from certain appellate courts.

Scotland’s distinctive tradition of criminal law and procedure means that the final appeal court in criminal matters is the High Court of Justiciary. However, there is one exception to this rule as the UK Supreme Court can consider Scottish criminal cases where a ‘devolution issues’ arises. The UK Supreme Court cannot however review any other decisions of the High Court of Justiciary.

If you wish to know more about the UK Supreme Court’s role you will find more information in these documents:

The following video explores the role of the Supreme Court.

Download this video clip.Video player: What is the Supreme Court
Skip transcript: What is the Supreme Court

Transcript: What is the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal for all civil cases in the whole of the UK, and for all criminal ones, except for those in Scotland. It used to sit in the Houses of Parliament. And the country's top judges, known as law lords, not only presided over cases there, but were also members of the House of Lords.
But why was it necessary to move everything over here? To find out why, I'm going to ask one of the Supreme Court justices, Lord Kerr.
So why was the Supreme Court established as a separate entity?
A fundamental principle of separation of powers is a cornerstone of our constitution. And what that means is that there should be a division of responsibility between those who make the laws and those who are responsible, like me, for adjudicating on difficult points of law. And the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, by establishing the Supreme Court, made that expressly clear.
The old Middlesex guild hall building was chosen for the new site, and eventually, the new Supreme Court of the UK opened in October 2009.


As a result, the law lords became Supreme Court justices.

And I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm.
When the law lords sat in the House of Lords, it wasn't accessible to the public. It was pretty difficult to help people get their heads around what actually went on there. And as a result, very few people ever sat in the public galleries. I wonder if things have changed with the move here.
Working in the House of Lords was super in many ways. But here, the working conditions are much better. We have much more space for our staff. Perhaps more importantly even than that is that we're much more accessible to the public. We have lots of visitors. We have a very good exhibition centre. We have extraordinarily good reception staff. They explain to the visitors what's happening in the court that day. They conduct tours. And generally, we find we're a very popular tourist attraction.
I don't know what I expected before I came here-- probably that it was all going to feel a bit unfriendly and imposing. But being here, you really don't get that feeling at all. What you do notice, though, is that the courts here don't look anything like the courts we're used to seeing on the telly. So how does it all work here?
For a case to be heard here, it needs to have gone through a whole load of different stages before it reaches the Supreme Court-- as will cases from Scotland, although criminal cases from Scotland can only reach this court in certain circumstances. The high court of the justiciary is usually Scotland's highest for criminal matters.


The judges HERE also serve as the highest court of appeal for a whole load of other countries in the Commonwealth, and for British overseas territories, when they sit as something called the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
Only certain cases make it as far as the Supreme Court. To do so, they must address a wider issue of importance to society. This can be clearly seen in some of the most high profile cases to find their way to the House of Lords, or more recently, to the Supreme Court.
I've come to me Lady Hale, another of the Supreme Court justices, and the first woman to be appointed to the role, to find out a bit more about how the court works.
Well, we're an appeal court. That means that we don't hear the witnesses. We don't decide who's telling the truth. We don't decide what the facts are. The parties come to us with a set of facts. And they ask us what the law is. We only choose to have the cases which involve general points of law, which are important to a large number of the population.
For example, we were hearing a case which is all about what responsibilities the Ministry of Defence owes to the soldiers fighting in Iraq for the equipment that they sent them out to fight with. What could be more important than that?
And why are these points of law so, so important?
Well, once we have decided what the law is, then everybody else has to follow it. So the case about the army, it comes up to us. We decide what the responsibilities of the government, if any, are. It then goes back to the trial judge, who will apply what we have said when he comes to decide the case. But not only that case-- every other case that raises the same point, the judges in the courts below us have to do what we have said the law is. It's called the doctrine of precedent.
I wonder if how the Supreme Court works affects the layout of the courtrooms, which looks very different from what you might expect them to.
You'll see there isn't a witness box. There isn't a jury box. There isn't even a press box, because anybody can come in and sit at the back and listen to what we're doing. We're all round a table. So the justices are in a curve on one side, and the barristers and the other lawyers and the parties they represent are in a curve on the other side. And we try and make it feel like a general discussion of these very important issues.
End transcript: What is the Supreme Court
What is the Supreme Court
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371