Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Philip Loft, ‘Litigation, agency and oligarchy: the transformation and role of the Lords as High Court, 1689-1720’

Dr Paul Hunneyball, Senior Research Fellow on the Lords 1603-1660 section, reports back on our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Philip Loft of UCL spoke on ‘Litigation, agency and oligarchy: the transformation and role of the Lords as High Court, 1689-1720’…

Philip’s doctoral research has involved a detailed study of the huge body of legal papers preserved from this period at the Parliamentary Archives, including around 1,100 individual appeals presented to the House of Lords. As he pointed out, this represented a very substantial increase in the volume of legal business undertaken by the Upper House prior to the Glorious Revolution. Even though most appeals were heard in the early phase of each session, while the Lords waited for new legislation to arrive from the House of Commons, the burgeoning role of the peers as a court of appeal helped to cement their place within the new constitutional framework that emerged after 1688. Contrary to the traditional view that the Commons were now the dominant political force within Parliament, the Lords’ power to reinterpret statutes and overturn judgements ensured that their influence continued to be felt.

Philip devoted much of his presentation to the interactions between Scotland and the Lords. Although the 1707 Act of Union safeguarded the Scottish legal system, it did not address the question of appeals to the Lords, and this constitutional loophole was subsequently exploited with considerable success by Scots unhappy with rulings made north of the border. Around a third of appeals from Scotland were successful, a higher proportion than for England, Wales or Ireland. One important case undermined the liturgical stranglehold of the Scottish Kirk, while others affected the privileges enjoyed by individual burghs. The considerable volume of business reflected both concerns about the strength of the residual Scottish institutions, and also the desire of marginalized individuals to circumvent local interests. The net result was that the Lords’ role as an appeal court helped to bind England and Scotland more closely together.

Finally, Philip considered the political impact of these developments. While not disputing the rise of oligarchy within the British system, he argued that the Lords served as a useful check on the power of the landowning classes. With the appeals process increasingly subjected to public scrutiny, the peers found themselves under some pressure to uphold the rule of law impartially. Although politics might occasionally impact on the legal process, in general the Lords came to rely on the guidance of a small number of peers with genuine expertise in this area, a trend which encouraged a more professional and neutral approach to the hearing of appeals.

Philip’s very rich narrative prompted a lengthy discussion which teased out some other aspects of this subject. Gaps in the evidence mean that we rarely know why peers voted one way or another, though in most cases judgement was reached by consensus. During this period, the range of appeals to the Lords changed, with land disputes increasingly being resolved by legislation, for example. The overall levels of litigation in the country were falling, and the broad trend in the number of appeals was also downwards; but conversely the Lords’ role as supreme arbiter of the constitution became generally accepted.


Join us tonight for our next ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar. Alice Ferron, also of UCL, will speak on ‘The widow’s peak: early Stuart female voices of authority in Parliament’. Full details available here.


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