House of lords

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The House of lords has a vestigial role in legislation in the UK; it is now completely subordinate to the House of Commons. Traditionally, the Lords had contained a strong hereditary component, with the remainder ecclesiastical, judicial and governmental appointees. Despite strong assertions to the contrary from the Lords themselves, most British citizens have viewed the Lords, for well over half a century now, as being less representative of the population than the directly-elected Commons. However, it is only in the last decade and a half that the powers of hereditary peers have been curtailed, principally in reform measures promulgated by the Labour Government under (former) Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Legislation, excepting money bills, may be introduced in either House, but, mostly it is introduced in the House of Commons.[citation needed]

Today, the House of lords debates legislation, and has a small degree of residual power to amend or reject bills passed by the House of Commons. However, this power is severely restricted by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. Under these Acts, certain types of bills may be presented for the Royal Assent without the consent of the House of lords. That is to say, the Commons may, as a result of these Acts, override a veto by the House of lords in certain instances. In addition, the House of lords is prohibited under these Acts from delaying a money bill (i.e. a bill which, in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, solely concerns national taxation or public funds) for more than one month. Moreover, other public bills may not be delayed by the House of lords for more than two parliamentary sessions, or one calendar year. (Note, though, that this provisions only applies to public bills that originate in the House of Commons and cannot have the effect of extending a parliamentary term beyond five years.) A further restriction on the legislative power of the House of lords is a constitutional convention known as the 'Salisbury Convention', which stipulates that as Parliament's only elected chamber, the House of Commons possesses a mandate to pass any legislation contained in its election manifesto without a veto by the House of lords.

By a custom that prevailed even before the two Parliament Acts, the legislative powers of the House of lords are further limited inasmuch as it may neither originate a bill regarding taxation or 'supply' (i.e. supply of treasury or exchequer funds) nor amend any other bill by inserting a taxation or supply-related provision. (Note though, that the House of Commons often waives its privileges in this context to allow the Upper House to propose amendments with financial implications.) In addition, the House of lords may not amend any Supply Bill at all. (Prior to the Parliament Acts, the House of lords maintained an absolute power to reject any bill relating to revenue or supply.)

Historically, the House of lords held several judicial functions. Most notably, until 2009 the House of lords served as the court of last resort for most instances of UK law. Since 1 October 2009 this role is now held by the newly created Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

The Lords' erstwhile judicial functions originated from the ancient role of the Curia Regis as a body that addressed the petitions of the King's subjects. The functions were exercised not by the whole House, but by a committee of 'Law Lords'. The bulk of the House of Lord's judicial business was conducted by the twelve 'Lords of Appeal in Ordinary', who were specifically appointed for this purpose under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. The judicial functions could also be exercised by Lords of Appeal (other members of the House who happened to have held high judicial office). No Lord of Appeal in Ordinary or Lord of Appeal could sit judicially beyond the age of seventy-five. The judicial business of the Lords was supervised by the Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and his deputy, the Second Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.

The jurisdiction of the House of lords extended, in civil and criminal cases, to appeals from the courts of (i) England and Wales, and (ii) Northern Ireland. From Scotland, appeals were possible only in civil cases; Scotland's High Court of Justiciary is the highest court in criminal matters there. The House of lords was not the United Kingdom's only court of last resort; in some cases, the Privy Council also performed this function. The jurisdiction of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, however, was (and still is) relatively restricted; it encompassed appeals from ecclesiastical courts, disputes under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, and a few other minor matters. Issues concerning devolution were transferred from the Privy Council to the Supreme Court in 2009.

The twelve Law Lords did not hear every case en banc; rather, after World War II, cases were heard largely by panels referred to as 'Appellate Committees', each of which normally consisted of five members selected by the Senior Lord. In the event of a particularly important case, an Appellate Committee hearing could consist of more than five members. Although the Appellate Committees met in specially designated committee rooms, judgment was given in the Lords Chamber itself. Although no further appeal was possible following a decision by the House of lords, the Lords could refer a 'preliminary question' to the European Court of Justice in cases involving an element of European Union law. Moreover, a case could be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in an instance where the House of lords had failed to provide a satisfactory remedy in the view of a litigating party, provided the European Convention on Human Rights was relevant to the court's decision.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 resulted in the creation of a separate Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, to which the judicial function of the House of lords, and some of the judicial functions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, have now been transferred. In addition, the office of Lord Chancellor was reformed by the 2005 Act, removing his power to act as both a government minister and a judge. This was motivated, in part, by concerns that the historical admixture of legislative, judicial and executive powers might not satisfy the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights in connection with a judiciary's impartiality. It was also a response to growing acceptance of the view promoted by modern constitutional theorists that the old approach gave rise to very real separation of powers concerns. The new Supreme Court is located at Middlesex Guildhall in London.

See also House of lords reform, Court system of England.

Public Law