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The UK Supreme Court (UKSC) was established in October 2009 under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA 2005). It was created as part of a push to strengthen the separation of powers in the UK constitution, by removing the judiciary (the Law Lords) from the upper house of the UK legislature (the House of Lords).

The 12-member Court is the final court of appeal for civil matters throughout the UK and for criminal matters in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. It also has a special role in relation to the devolution statutes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: it adjudicates on devolution “issues” raised and “references” made under those statutes.

The Court plays an important role in interpreting and applying the law of the UK’s three territorial jurisdictions. Like its predecessor, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, it ensures the law is correctly interpreted and applied, and that the legal limits on the powers of public institutions are respected.

The Supreme Court’s role is primarily that of an appellate jurisdiction. This means it is a forum for reconsidering the legal decisions of other courts and tribunals, rather than one that considers original disputes directly. Most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are themselves brought from other appellate courts, but exceptionally some are brought directly from courts of first instance.

Devolution and compatibility “references” are unusual, in that they can be made directly to the UK Supreme Court. Before 2009, devolution references were made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), rather than the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. For example, if the UK Government believes a bill passed by a devolved legislature would exceed that legislature’s competence, it can ask the UKSC to rule on that question before the bill is presented for Royal Assent.

The Supreme Court is physically based in the former Middlesex Guildhall, on the opposite side of Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster. It shares its building, secretariat and facilities with the JCPC. The JCPC functions as a final court of appeal for a range of Commonwealth jurisdictions, including the Crown Dependencies and some but not all British Overseas Territories, Commonwealth realms and Commonwealth republics.

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