In December the Supreme Court announced that every Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will in future be styled as ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’, to ensure that all Justices are described and addressed in a similar manner.
When the Supreme Court opened in October 2009 the first Supreme Court Justices had all previously sat in the House of Lords as Law Lords and although they lost the right to sit in Parliament when they moved to the newly created Supreme Court, they remained Peers and so kept their titles. The appointment of Sir John Dyson from the Court of Appeal last year as the first Justice who had not been a Law Lord, inevitably led to some confusion over how the Justices should be described and addressed. Hence the decision to give all new Justices the ‘courtesy title’ of Lord or Lady. The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips has described the change as ‘a welcome move to help us introduce consistency and avoid the complications of a variety of titles being employed.’
But while the decision might ensure clarity, it is also a retrograde step for the Court to revert back to using titles with aristocratic associations at odds with the more modern and forward-looking image which the Supreme Court has worked hard to present. Moreover, particular problems are caused by the question of what to call the Justices’ spouses and partners. The Court has announced that the wife of a Justice will be described as ‘Ladys’. No mention is made of the title for Justices’ husbands or indeed the civil partners of any future appointees. This is because only Lords are allowed to bestow their titles on their wives. The result is that the only female member of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, is not entitled to bestow her title
on her husband. Nor will the civil partners of any future appointees attract a ‘courtesy title’ by virtue of their partner’s ‘courtesy title’.
A better approach would have been for the Court to tolerate the confusion of mixed titles for the period while the Court consists of both former Law Lords and new appointees and to move gradually to using judicial titles one would expect to see in a 21st century Supreme Court. At the very least the practice of bestowing titles on the wives of male, heterosexual Justices should be abandoned. Quite apart from the discriminatory treatment of husbands and civil partners, the idea that a person should receive a title by virtue of the professional job undertaken by their partner sits uncomfortably with the image of a modern, merit-based judiciary which the Supreme Court surely wishes to cultivate.