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The Fall of the House of Lords

Law lords In Britain last week, an unusual 600-year-long tradition came to an end as the House of Lords decided its final case. True to form, it went out not with a whimper, but with a bang.

The House of Lords has served as the United Kingdom's supreme court of appeal, its highest court, since 1399. It has been an unusual role for the House of Lords, given that it is part of Parliament and a legislative body. For the last 100 years, this judicial function has been performed by 12 law lords (pictured), roughly the equivalent of Supreme Court justices in the United States.

Starting in October, the U.K. will have a new Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords, the result of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005. The act also reforms the office of Lord Chancellor, removing his ability to act as both government minister and judge and transferring his judicial functions to the Lord Chief Justice.

On Thursday, the Law Lords delivered their final ruling and it was, by all accounts, historic, not just for what it represented, but for what it decided. The ruling will force British prosecutors to clarify the circumstances under which they will prosecute someone for assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy, a 46-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis, brought the case. She wants her husband to bring her to Switzerland so that she can end her life at the assisted-suicide clinic Dignitas. But first she hopes to get clarification of whether prosecutors will charge her husband if he assists her.

The House of Lords' ruling means that Keir Starmer, Britain's director of public prosecutions, will be required to promulgate a policy defining the circumstances in which he would prosecute someone for assisted suicide. Starmer said Thursday he would immediately begin drafting an interim policy that he plans to have ready by September.

As the law lords delivered their final ruling last week, they went out with a bit of a flourish. After announcing the decision in Purdy's case, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers announced, "Here endeth our final judgments."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 4, 2009 at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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