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Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is one of the highest courts in the United Kingdom. It is also the highest court of appeal (or court of last resort) for several independent British Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories and the British crown dependencies. It is simply referred to simply to the Privy Council, as appeals are in fact made to Her Majesty in Council who then refers the case to the Judicial Committee for "advice". In Commonwealth republics, appeals are made directly to the Judicial Committee instead. Formerly the Judicial Committee gave a single piece of advice, but since the 1960s dissenting opinions have been allowed.

The judicial system of the United Kingdom is unusual in having no single highest national court; the Judicial Committee is the highest court of appeal in some cases, while in most others the highest court of appeal is the House of Lords. In Scottish criminal cases the highest court is the High Court of Justiciary.

The Judicial Committee:

The Law Lords serve as members of the Judicial Committee, which also includes Privy Counsellors who are members of superior courts in other Commonwealth countries. There are presently 15 such overseas members. The bulk of the work is done by the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, who are paid to work full time on the judicial functions of the House of Lords and the Privy Council.

The end of Commonwealth Appeals

Initally, all Commonwealth Realms and their territories maintained a right of appeal to the Privy Council. Many of those that became republics or independent indigenous monarchies preserved the Privy Council's jurisdiction by entering into treaties with the British Crown. However, over time many members began to see the Privy Council as being out of tune with local values, and an obstacle to full judicial sovereignty.

In the Commonwealth of Australia the right of appeal was effectively abolished from the Commonwealth Courts by the Privy Council (Limitation of Appeals) Act 1968 and the Privy Council (Appeals from the High Court) Act 1975, and from the State courts by the Australia Act 1986. The Australian constitution still has a provision requiring the leave of the High Court of Australia for appeal to the Privy Council on certain matters (other subjects could be appealed without the High Court's permission), so theoretically the High Court could still grant leave on those restricted subjects. However, the High Court has stated that it will not give such permission, so the possibility is purely theoretical.

Appeals could also be made from Canada until 1949, and even after the Supreme Court of Canada was founded in 1875. During that time appeals to the Privy Council could bypass the Supreme Court.

In 2003 the Parliament of New Zealand by a narrow margin voted to enact legislation to abandon appeals to the Privy Council in favour of establishing the new Supreme Court of New Zealand. This court is expected to be operational by mid-2004.

The nations of the Caribbean Community similarly voted in 2001 to abolish the right of appeal to the Privy Council in favour of a Caribbean Court of Justice. Debate between member countries have repeatedly delayed the court's date of operation, however.