Indeed their judgements seemed often to be quite sage, insightful, and eloquently given.

But why would that tend to be the case?

As I understand it, to become a lord, one must inherit a seat through the noble peerage; the House of Lords is not elected.

Thus, while they will be likely to nearly all possess some substantial degree of education, class, and culture, it seems as though there is hardly anything to guarantee that any of them, much less any definite subset, will have had any particular degree of legal training.

Where did they used to derive their legal wisdoms from?

I suppose I am missing to an extent the fact that they are after all along with the House of Commons the very ones who devised most legislation in the UK to begin with, so that they can be nearly guaranteed to understand it and to accurately divine its true original intent.

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    "As I understand it, to become a lord, one must inherit a seat through the noble peerage; the House of Lords is not elected." The House of Lords Act 1999 removed all but 92 of the hereditary peers, who were allowed to remain for an 'interim period'. These are elected by the hereditary peerage. The remainder of the House of Lords is filled with 'life peers' appointed by the monarch (in practice, the Prime Minister). As of June 2022, there are 654 life peers eligible to vote in the House of Lords. Nov 6, 2022 at 12:15
  • 9
    "Where did they used to derive their legal wisdoms from?" It's helpful to think in terms of the ancient powers and duties of a king – general-in-chief, priest-in-chief, and judge-in-chief – and consider the development of a (democratic) constitutional monarchy as gradually taking those powers and moving them to other bodies. It wasn't that someone decided the Lords would be the best judges, it's that that is where the monarch's supreme judicial power went to (better than the monarch judging alone!) until the Supreme Court was created.
    – dbmag9
    Nov 6, 2022 at 15:59
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    I suggest The House of Lords was never seen to have "such supreme legal wisdom" In my view, you seem to be confusing "wisdom" and "authority" The House of Lords was designated as the court of last resort because of the traditional power of its members… power, not wisdom. The status of the lords came first from their martial power and then from the fact that almost no-one but the sons of lords had any education. Such things are historical because they were in their own time logical. Nov 7, 2022 at 0:40
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    @MichaelHarvey there are also the Lords Spiritual, who sit by virtue of their ecclesiastical position, without necessarily holding life peerages
    – Tristan
    Nov 7, 2022 at 9:49
  • 1
    @Tristan - yes, and these days, leaders of other faiths often get life peerages too. Since 2015, Lords Spiritual can be women, the first being Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, who famously sent back her writ of summons to the Lords because it called her a 'Right Reverend Father in God'. This led to a revision to the writ wording. Nov 7, 2022 at 10:16

1 Answer 1


The origin of Parliament was from the curia regis, the King's Court. In that early form, the King's Court exercised both judicial and legislative functions. In 1215, with the Magna Carta and the beginning of Parliaments, the House of Lords assumed the judicial functions of the King's Court.

Prior to 1876, it was possible for any member of the House of Lords to hear appeals. Eventually, however, the judicial function tended to be exercised by those appointed specifically to judicial office in the House of Lords, although this was not a formal restriction until 1876.

Since 1876 and until 2009, the judicial function of the House of Lords was formally restricted to be exercised by the Law Lords (see s. 5 of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876). However, the outcome of the appeal was also still formally an action of the entire House of Lords, on the recommendation of the panel of Law Lords that heard the appeal (see Stanley Clark, "Gentlemen, Their Lordships", p. 1443-44). And custom was that only the Law Lords that heard the appeal would vote, with all other members of the House of Lords abstaining.1 Rather than lords via hereditary peerage, the Law Lords were Lords/Ladies holding special qualifications and having received specific appointment to be a "Lord of Appeal in Ordinary." Among other qualifications, they would have already served in a high court or practised as a barrister for fifteen years.

As an example of the kind of background a person might have before appointment as a Law Lord, this is Lord Denning's Wikipedia introduction:

He was called to the bar of England and Wales in 1923 and became a King's Counsel in 1938. Denning became a judge in 1944 when he was appointed to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice, and transferred to the King's Bench Division in 1945. He was made a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1948 after less than five years in the High Court. He became a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1957 and after five years in the House of Lords returned to the Court of Appeal as Master of the Rolls in 1962, a position he held for twenty years.

In 2009, the judicial function of the House of Lords was transfered to the UK Supreme Court. The Law Lords at the time became the first justices of the UK Supreme Court.

1. Citation practice is to indicate that a judgment is from the House of Lords by using parentheses after identifying the reporter. E.g.: "Livingstone v. Rawyards Coal Co. (1880), 5 App. Cas. 25 (H.L.)." Starting in 2001, the House of Lords used vendor-neutral citations managed by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. The vendor-neutral citations for judgments from the House of Lords use "UKHL" as the abbreviation. BAILII has also provided many older judgments from the House of Lords with unofficial neutral citations following the same convention.

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    +1. From 1876 to 2009, the short answer is the "law lords" (highest court) were part of the House of Lords, but not vice versa.
    – abligh
    Nov 6, 2022 at 14:34
  • 1
    The Blair reform of 2009 was window-dressing. The judiciary had been independent of the legislature since 1876 (although theoretically the law lords could vote in the House of Lords).
    – grahamj42
    Nov 6, 2022 at 16:29
  • 2
    There was a very political case in 1844 -- Queen v O'Connell. The Prime Minister sent Lord Wharncliffe into the House to persuade them not to interfere in the work of the judicial committee. That was when the precedent was set. I've never found a primary source for that though, only people talking about it later (e.g., api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1883/may/08/…)
    – Calchas
    Nov 7, 2022 at 0:48

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