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October 6, 2009

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Britain gains new Supreme Court

BRITAIN'S most powerful judges take up their first case this week with new robes, new titles, a new courtroom and, some argue, more power.

Yesterday marked the hearing of the first case by Britain's new Supreme Court, a group of 12 justices who were previously known as the Law Lords.

They were due to hear an appeal by five unnamed terror suspects who have had their financial assets frozen by the British government. The five now need to ask formal permission to access their money to buy groceries and other living expenses.

A High Court judge ruled last year that Britain's finance department had no right to freeze suspects' bank accounts, but that decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

The justices hearing the case used to make their rulings from the red benches of the stately House of Lords. But they now hear cases in a newly renovated Supreme Court building, which was previously known as the Middlesex Guildhall.

The removal of the nation's highest court from the legislature is meant to emphasize Britain's separation of powers.

One leading judge has argued that the focus on independence might make the new court more muscular in its judgments -- and potentially more ambitious. In an interview with BBC radio last month, David Neuberger, one of the country's most senior judges, said there was a risk of the Supreme Court justices "arrogating to themselves greater power than they have at the moment."

But the Supreme Court's president, Lord Phillips, said such a move was unlikely.


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