Blair's supreme court rejected by lords

Key points

• Lords reject supreme court plans for UK

• Constitutional Reform Bill to be sent to special select committee

• Ministers may resort to forcing bill through Parliament regardless

• Implications for Scottish legal system still remain

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Key quote "The House has taken a very serious step...That is very serious indeed and the government will consider what the consequences may be," – Baroness Amos, the government’s leader in the Lords

Story in full THE government was last night thrown into a constitutional crisis after the House of Lords threw out its plans to establish a United States-style with its plans for a United States-style supreme court .

The peers’ vote, at the end of a marathon debate with more than 40 speakers, was instantly criticised by ministers as a cynical delaying tactic.

It came after Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, cautioned against "political mischief-making" by the Tories.

Voting was 216 to 183 - a majority of 33 - for the move by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a senior law lord, to send the Constitutional Reform Bill to a special select committee.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, has branded the committee a delaying tactic which would effectively wreck the bill.

He has threatened to reintroduce the bill in the Commons and invoke the Parliament Act to push it through - although sceptics doubt there would be time before an election next year.

The outcome was an embarrassing defeat for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who ordered the changes to Britain’s ancient system of legal appeals during his much-criticised Cabinet reshuffle last year, which also saw the post of Scottish secretary devalued.

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Immediately after the vote, Baroness Amos, the government’s leader in the Lords, said: "The House has taken a very serious step."

By voting for a special select committee, she said, the un-elected Lords had made it impossible for the democratically-elected Commons to receive the bill in time to consider it this session.

"That is very serious indeed and the government will consider what the consequences may be," she added.

The defeat had not been expected following an eight-hour debate in which senior figures had signalled they would countenance an end to the centuries-old tradition of the Lords as the highest appeal court in the land.

The bill will scrap the ancient office of lord chancellor, set up a supreme court as a final court of appeal, and eject the law lords from the upper chamber, as well as establish a judicial appointments commission. Last night, the plans were criticised for failing to take into account the implications for Scotland’s independent legal system.

During the debate Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice and the most senior judge in England, told peers he would be "very concerned" if the bill was not passed, although he admitted a delay "can be accommodated" by the legal system if the vote went against the government.

Scotland’s chief justice, Lord Cullen of Whitekirk, said during the debate: "As a final court of appeal, the House of Lords has sometimes functioned as an English court and at times as a Scottish court."

Lord Cullen, the Lord Justice General of Scotland, said that the Lord Chancellor had stated last month that the bill would say that "leaving aside decisions on devolution issues, decisions of a United Kingdom supreme court would only have binding effect within the particular jurisdiction from which the appeal arises, so that the decision on an English appeal would not overrule a Scottish decision. However, the bill does not state this.

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"Under the bill, the jurisdictions of the House of Lords in English and Scottish appeals will put into a single package, and transferred to a unitary court - a court serving two separate legal systems.

"My concern is that this proposal, as it is expressed, will mean a gradual erosion of the difference between Scots law and English law. The same point arises in regard to the supreme court’s involvement with Scots criminal law, in dealing with devolution issues.

"There is nothing in the bill which states that, in exercising the transferred jurisdictions, the supreme court is to respect the continued separate existence and identity of the legal systems of England on the one hand and Scotland on the other."

The Department for Constitutional Affairs told reporters after the vote: "We are extremely disappointed this bill has been effectively kicked into the long grass, denying the democratically-elected House of Commons a chance to have their say.

"Not since the Hare Coursing Bill in 1975 has this device been used to prevent a bill from coming out of the House of Lords.

"Constitutional reform is vitally important. The bill would have strengthened our democracy and would have protected and enhanced the independence of the judiciary.

"We will now have to consider the next steps to ensure these changes take place."