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 Commonwealth countries, the UK overseas territories, and the British crown dependencies. It is simply referred to as 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. In the case of Brunei, the appeal is made to the local Sultan, who is advised by the Judicial Committee. 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.
Cases involving devolution issues arising under the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 or the Northern Ireland Act 1998, i.e. disputes regarding the validity of acts of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. The cases may reach the Committee as follows:
The Attorney-General or other Law Officers may refer a bill from the devolved body to the Committee.
The litigants may appeal a case from certain superior courts.
Appellate courts, including the House of Lords, may refer a case to the Committee.
Any court, if a Law Officer so desires, may refer a case to the Committee.
Law Officers may refer any issue not related to a bill or case to the Committee.
Appeals from the Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Appeals against schemes of the Church Commissioners (who control the estate of the Church of England).
Appeals from the ecclesiastical courts (the Arches Court of Canterbury and the Chancery Court of York) in non-doctrinal faculty cases.
Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (who also serve in the House of Lords, known as 'Law Lords')
Other Lords of Appeal
Privy Counsellors who are or were judges of the Court of Appeal of England, the Inner House of the Court of Session of Scotland or the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland
Privy Counsellors who are judges of certain superior courts in Commonwealth nations
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. Foreign judges may not sit when certain domestic matters are being heard.
Initially, all CommonwealthRealms 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.
Australia effectively abolished the right of appeal 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.
Canada created its Supreme Court in 1875, but appeals to the Privy Council were possible until 1949, bypassing the Supreme Court.
New Zealand law was changed in October 2003 to abolish appeals to the Privy Council in respect of all cases heard by the Court of Appeal of New Zealand after the end of 2003, in favour of a Supreme Court of New Zealand.
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, Trinidad & Tobago did abolish the right of appeal in 2003.