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Court in the act: just what's so great about the House of Lords?

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legal matters

I have spent the past two weeks in the House of Lords. This is no mean feat. A brief in the House of Lords comes rarely, if ever, and is usually for a hearing of a day or two at most. Their lordships decided, however, to hear four appeals, each of which raised points on the Civil Liability Contribution Act 1978. The appeal in CRS v Taylor Young Partnership and Hoare Lea & Partners was the last of the four, so I was required to attend them all.

'What's so great about the House of Lords?' my daughter asked when another late night in chambers led to dereliction of my domestic duties. It is difficult to encapsulate all that is great in five points but let's have a go.

The House of Lords is the highest court in the land. There is, save for those cases with a Human Rights Act angle, no further court of appeal. It is where new law is made and, as such, anything can happen. Usually barristers spend their time trying to fit the facts of their particular case within the parameters of other precedents decided along similar lines or, if the case is against them, trying to distinguish their case somehow.

In the House of Lords, if you think the judge got it wrong, you can say so.

Even more shockingly, you can submit that a Court of Appeal case was wrongly decided. Only when considering decisions of their lordships themselves do advocates need to tread more warily.

Despite being the highest court in the land, the five law lords who make up the panel do not sit in a courtroom. They sit in the Palace of Westminster in a committee room, at the end of a labyrinth of corridors and staircases, with a view over the River Thames. The room is bursting with an abundance of High Gothic and Pugin details, with walls decorated wholly in keeping with the Lord Chancellor's stated preferences. Despite these magnificent surroundings, the judges do not wear robes but sit in lounge suits. The law reporter explained that this was because, so far as the machinery of government was concerned, the House of Lords is not a court at all, but just another committee reporting to Parliament.

The tribunal's informal attire contrasts starkly with the formality of proceedings. The court documents are produced on pages with letters down the side, a challenge for even the most confident user of Word, with double-sided photocopying in bound volumes. The Law Lords are attended by ushers who eschew the usual crimplene suit and well-worn gown in favour of white tie and tails. The room is cleared before their lordships enter, and counsel loiter in the corridor in order to bow to each judge before resuming their seat.

Counsel in the case are usually senior QCs, and it is a rare privilege to watch as the Bar's most experienced leading counsel are put on the spot by five of the legal profession's most penetrating minds.

Not for the faint-hearted, I can tell you.

As one of the silks confided, it is like making a bungee jump and not knowing whether the bridge will stand up. You will not be surprised to learn that when Lord Bingham fixed me with his beady eye and asked me a simple question about timetabling, I promptly forgot what day it was and confused my opponent with a wellknown boxer with a similar name.

By far the best thing about the House of Lords, certainly as far as my daughter is concerned, was the gift shop. A tiny kiosk located deep in the labyrinth, open only to users of the building, it turns over £1 million a year selling rather nice House of Lords paraphernalia: smart leather goods, glassware, claret, spirits, stationery. Every day I came clanking back from court with carrier bags full of goodies for friends and family.

So, what is so good about the House of Lords?

The answer, from my daughter at least, seems to be a bar of fine white chocolate and a teddy bear jigsaw.

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