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Judges and the law
Judges and the law

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3.3 Structure of the court system in England and Wales

3.3.1 Supreme Court of the United Kingdom

This is the highest appeal court in the UK and was created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The court became operational on 1 October 2009. Generally permission to appeal must be sought before a case can be brought to the UK Supreme Court.

As the highest court of appeal it hears matters which involve points of law of general public importance and concentrates on cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance. Its decisions are binding on all courts lower in the court hierarchy. In concentrating on cases involving points of law which are of public importance and cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance the court makes decisions which help shape society. The court:

  • is the final court of appeal for all UK civil cases
  • is the final court of appeal for all criminal cases from England
  • Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland)
  • is the final arbiter on devolution issues.

The rest of this course will make reference to the House of Lords. Until 1 October 2009 the House of Lords had been the highest appeal court in England and Wales. The powers and rules of the former House of Lords therefore remain relevant to your studies.

Box 2 Understanding the importance of thinking

To have come this far, you will have done a great deal of thinking. Thinking is something we do all the time. It is a vital part of life. However, although we are all taught lots of things in school, it is not that common to be trained in the art of thinking. Before we proceed further into the course, it is worth pausing to consider a few important aspects of thinking. Activities 6 and 7 will help you improve your thinking.

I would like to start by asking you to consider some fundamental questions about education.

Activity 6 The importance of thinking skills

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Note down your responses to the following questions:

  1. Why would you like to become a university student?

  2. What do you see as the purpose of higher education?

  3. How do you think your answers to the previous question would differ from answers that the Government, employers or university teaching staff might give?


There are, of course, no set answers to questions of this sort. People and organisations have their own reasons and views. People give a range of reasons for becoming Open University students. For example, they may want to improve job prospects, to explore and gain knowledge of a subject area of interest, to develop themselves generally, or to have contact with others. Perhaps your responses to the second question were the same as to the first. Or maybe you mentioned more general skills and attributes that can be gained, such as confidence, communication or interpersonal skills.

Did you include extending or developing thinking skills in any of your responses? If you did, how important was this in relation to other reasons you listed for study and higher education? The ability to think, particularly the ability to think critically, is often cited as one of the main purposes of education by those involved in delivering higher education today. Look at the following list and compare it with your answers.

Traditional aims of higher education:

  • adopting a distinctive way of thinking about concepts, evidence and theories

  • taking a distanced, critical stance towards subject matter, assumptions and explanations

  • tackling issues systematically, logically and effectively

  • examining the adequacy of evidence and checking alternative interpretations of it

  • demonstrating a thorough understanding of complex, abstract concepts within the discipline

  • writing clearly and cogently, following appropriate academic styles and conventions

  • being able to set and solve problems by applying concepts and techniques appropriately.

Activity 7 Thinking skills in education today

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

Can you suggest why thinking skills are considered to be so important in education today?


Education can be seen as the main way of developing individuals and society. There are a range of possible reasons you might have suggested for thinking being an important area to develop. Perhaps your reasons related to economic factors, or perhaps social, cultural or educational factors. A strong argument these days is that knowledge is central to our information age and movement towards a knowledge-based economy. The creation and use of knowledge depends on our ability to think. Good thinking could be viewed as empowering for individuals and society. Education can be seen as a process of joining a community in a subject. So you may become, for example, a social scientist or mathematician by learning the thinking styles, language and other characteristics of that community.

Your reasons for studying and what you see as the purpose of higher education will influence your thinking, styles of study and other aspects of learning.

Note: These two activities are taken from ‘Extending and developing your thinking skills’, Open University Student Toolkit 9.

House of Lords

Until the creation of the UK Supreme Court, the House of Lords had been the most authoritative court in England and Wales. The House of Lords used to be bound by its own previous decisions until it changed this practice in 1966. The rationale for the old practice was that decisions of the highest court in the land should be final so that there would be certainty in the law and finality in litigation. This practice changed to enable the House of Lords to adapt the law to meet changing social conditions and to pay attention to the decisions of superior courts in the Commonwealth.

The possibility of the House of Lords changing its previous decisions is a recognition that law, whether expressed in statutes or cases, is a living and changing institution which must adapt to the circumstances to which it applies if it is to retain practical relevance.”