Lord Kerr hates Marmite. Lord Phillips cycles to work on a Brompton. Lord Hope is a descendant of a legal adviser to Charles I. These were some of the facts gleaned from the BBC programme ‘The Highest Court in the Land: Justice Makers’ aired last week. As can be inferred from the above, the focus of the programme was on the ‘human’ side of four Supreme Court Justices; approaching the work of the Court via personal insights into their lives. Such an approach is in keeping with the Supreme Court’s efforts to be more accessible, and is also probably a result of the BBC racking its brains as to how to attract an audience for a programme on a legal topic. The programme makers clearly decided that satisfying audience curiosity as to the décor of Lord Hope’s drawing room was their best bet.

The personal touch served to show the more human element of proceedings in the Supreme Court. But more substantial issues such as the constitutional role of the Court were also addressed. The segment on the dispute between the House of Lords and government in the Belmarsh case illustrated the differing views held by the executive and judiciary as to the role of the highest Court. The issue of judicial diversity was touched upon in a brief discussion of the split decision in Radmacher, in which Lady Hale gave the minority judgment. Such decisions throw into uncomfortable relief questions as to how much a Justice’s personal views and background influence their decisions. All four justices emphasised the need to remain emotionally and intellectually detached whilst hearing cases, but recognized how difficult this can be. Finally, the discussion of the bank charges case illustrated how the Supreme Court is often caught between a rock and a hard place. In many cases, whatever the final judgment, the Court will always face criticism, either from the public for not upholding a morally correct decision, or from the government for stepping outside its remit.

The discussion on the topics and cases above could have been expanded, and it is arguable that time spent asking the Justices what prompted them to enter a career in the law could have been spent exploring some of the issues of judicial diversity and the place of the Court in Britain’s constitutional arrangements in more detail. After raising these topics and asking some interesting questions, the programme would then swiftly skip onto the next issue.  Perhaps this criticism is unfair. As Adam Wagner pointed out in his post ‘Supreme Confusion’, the precise role of the Supreme Court is so open to debate that perhaps no concise format can deal with the constitutional niceties with sufficient clarity or detail.

To return to Lord Kerr’s hatred of marmite, what did shine through the revelations of personal foibles and sporting habits (Lord Phillips is a regular tennis player) was the Justices’ dedication to their work. The commitment and care with which Justices approach their decisions is clear, Lord Phillips regularly reads case papers at four in the morning. The Justices are also aware of their own limitations. I suspect that they might object to the somewhat bombastic label of ‘Justice Makers’ in the programme title. Ensuring that justice is done is difficult. As Lord Kerr observed ‘anyone who expresses themselves as absolutely certain is either a genius or fool’, and in the end it is about ‘reaching the best answer that you can.’