Wednesday 19 February 2014 was an unusual day in the Supreme Court. After an astonishing gap of exactly eight months there was a dissent in the Court – two to be precise – by Lords Mance and Clarke in Willaims v The Central Bank of Nigeria [2014] UKSC 10. The last case to contain a dissent  in the Court before then was Smith v The Ministry of Defence [2013] UKSC  41 by Lords Mance (with whom Lord Wilson agreed) and Carnwath. A scrutiny of dissents in the House of Lords and the Supreme Court between 2000 and  June 2013 suggests that throughout that period there was an average of one dissent for every 2.5 cases. This is a misleading statistic, however, since many cases contain more than one dissent, thus the true dissent rate between 2000-2009 was  that 22% of cases contained one or more dissents and in the Supreme Court from October 2009 to June 2013 it was 24%. The growth was in part due to the latter Court sitting in enlarged panels much more than the House of Lords did, and enlarged panels mean  more dissents.

Yet however we  look at it, the absence of a single dissent for 47 straight cases – unless we count the disagreement over the reasoning, though not the outcome, in Bull v Hall [2013] UKSC 73 as a case with dissents – is unparalleled in the last 15 years in the UK’s top court. How might we account for it? There is unlikely to  be a single explanation. The Court is sitting far less often in enlarged panels than it was in the Phillips Presidency (indeed there are no enlarged panels scheduled for the rest of this term), and the Court is working much more as a team than in the Bingham era in the House of Lords or the early years of the Supreme Court [see A. Paterson, Final Judgment (Hart Publishing, 2013), p.141 ] and that means more exchanges after the hearing is over. A third reason – though a surprising one – may be Lord Neuberger’s suggestion in para. 22 of the first BAILII lecture No Judgment, No Justice that there might be fewer dissents in the Court, a sentiment that surprised his audience, and possibly himself. It may be a case of beware of what you wish for. The Supreme Court’s liking for single judgments is now well known (55% of Supreme Court cases in 2013 were single judgments). This was seen by Lord Rodger as a threat to judicial individualism (Final Judgment. p. 315). A decline in dissents in the Supreme Court would compound this. Let us hope the next dissents will not be so long in coming.

Professor Alan Paterson is the author of Final Judgment (Hart Publishing, 2013) and teaches at the University of Strathclyde.