Constitutional law

Britain's justice secretary Liz Truss

When Elizabeth Truss was appointed Lord Chancellor and justice secretary there was considerable disquiet. The first holder of the combined roles Lord Falconer went so far to call the appointment “unlawful” and inappropriate. Others like Joshua Rozenberg (and myself) reserved judgment. After all, natural justice requires everyone to be assessed on their merits. Read more

The Houses of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament  © Getty Images

It is one thing to assert “Brexit is Brexit” and quite another to make it come about. Any departure of the UK from the EU is not going to happen by mere incantation of a grand phrase. There also has to be some legal means. So what are the legal means by which Brexit can happen?

Some say it can be done by the prime minister (with or without cabinet) as part of the so-called “royal prerogative” – the legal fiction that a minister may exercise the remaining powers of the crown which have not been limited by statute. The prime minister can, for example, enter into treaties on the basis of the royal prerogative.

Others say it can only be by an Act of Parliament — and these people are willing to litigate the point. The argument here is that there is legislation such as the European Communities Act which give individuals rights under EU law so it is not open to the executive to frustrate or circumvent this statute. Primary legislation would therefore be needed. Read more

The established order in any society can sometimes be wrong-footed, but they are usually not wrong-footed for long. Genuine revolutionaries know this, and they act quickly to take full advantage of any temporary advantage. Soon, however, the established order will regroup and refocus, with renewed determination.

The generally pro-EU political class in the United Kingdom has certainly had a fright. They were not expecting to lose the EU referendum. British political leaders were so confident of victory they even casually said that the people’s decision would be implemented “straight away”. And now there is a crisis, but only for a while. Read more

Various EU politicians can demand what they want but they may as well be whistling Read more

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Not all problems have solutions. And the political problem now caused by the decisive Leave vote in the UK does not lend itself to any straightforward solution in practice.

Part of this is because there was never a good objective reason for the referendum in practice, and part is because the referendum did not have any legal effect. It was always an unnecessary referendum with no legal consequences. In legal terms, it was a glorified opinion poll. Read more

The referendum on Britain’s EU membership is unnecessary. There is no objective reason for it to take place: no new treaty or proposed treaty amendment. It is merely a vote on whether the U.K. continues to be part of an international organisation of which it has been a member for over forty years. There is no more reason to have a referendum on this issue in June 2016 than in June 2015 or June 2017.

The referendum is also not binding as a matter of law. As set out in my earlier post, there is no legal consequence contingent on the result of the vote. The government could have legislated for an immediate legal effect but it chose not to do so. As such the referendum is advisory and not mandatory. The key decision by the government in the event of a “Leave” vote is whether to invoke the (seemingly) irreversible exit procedure in Article 50, and the government can make the relevant notification at a time of its choosing (subject perhaps to a parliamentary vote) or even not make such a notification at all. Read more

In June 2006, 10 years ago this month, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, promised to replace the Human Rights Act of 1998 with a “British bill of rights” when he and the Conservatives obtained power.

Ten years later the Human Rights Act is still the law of the land, even if it now seems Mr Cameron — prime minister since 2010 — may not be in office much longer. The Human Rights Act is as safe (or as unsafe) as it has ever been, and it looks as though the act will survive the premiership of Mr Cameron. Read more

What follows any referendum vote next week for the United Kingdom to leave the EU? From a legal perspective, the immediate consequence is simple: nothing will happen.

The relevant legislation did not provide for the referendum result to have any formal trigger effect. The referendum is advisory rather than mandatory. The 2011 referendum on electoral reform did have an obligation on the government to legislate in the event of a “yes” vote (the vote was “no” so this did not matter). But no such provision was included in the EU referendum legislation. Read more

After signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, British prime minister Tony Blair (right), US senator George Mitchell and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern (left)

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed by Tony Blair (right), George Mitchell and Bertie Ahern (left)  © Getty Images

A significant parliamentary report is published today. It is a report about something that has not happened yet, and does not look like happening soon. If the report is read carefully, it explains why the thing may never happen at all. Read more

Sir Edward Coke

Sir Edward Coke  © Getty Images

This post is the first of a series on law and legislation. Read more

BRITAIN-ECONOMY-BUDGET-POLITICS

The Houses of Parliament  © Getty Images

Public policy in England seems to have a rather illiberal tone at the moment. (And this post deliberately refers to England as, since devolution, it is increasingly hard to generalise about all the national governments in the UK.) Almost every day comes some new announcement about how the government wants to have more power at the expense of its citizens. Is England getting more illiberal? If so, how has this come about? And will any such illiberal trend continue?

First, the evidence of illiberalism. At its most stark, it is about life and death. In the last few weeks alone the prime minister has called for the army to be put above the law and for the law to be changed so as to make it easier for the police to shoot people. It would appear that David Cameron sees no role for the law in restraining those who can exercise lethal force on behalf of the state.

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CeBIT 2012 Technology Trade Fair

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This week the Home Office will be launching the new Investigatory Powers Bill. It had previously sought to obtain these powers under the “Snoopers’ Charter” proposals in the last parliament but it failed.

This time the government is sensibly not relying on the brute strength of parliamentary votes or the standard “FUD” tactic of promoting fear, uncertainty and doubt. Such methods of stealth and FUDery may not be sufficient, so something more is needed to get the Bill over the bumps of this first week or two. The Home Office wants your heads to nod along too.

Many people say that the problem with politics is that there is too much cynicism. The problem with UK politics, however, is not that people are too cynical but that they are too gullible. Our politics is beset and bedeviled by the phenomenon of mass nodding along. Just get the catchphrases correct, and you will get all the audience applause you need. The trick is saying the right things at the right time. Read more

Magna Carta  © Getty Images

Last week the UK’s Cabinet Office sought silently to remove the reference to “international law” from the Ministerial Code.

The text had stated that there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”. The new version states that there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Does this matter? From a strict legalistic perspective, there is an argument that it makes no difference: inclusion or exclusion of text from a ministerial code by acts of ministerial or civil service discretion do not create or change substantive law. And there is some force in this contention, though the courts can and do look at such documents when construing the obligations of the state under public law and the legitimate expectations of individuals who can be affected by state actions. Read more

David Cameron Attends Prime Minister's Questions In Parliament

Michael Gove  © Getty Images

If there is an epitome of just how bad the tenure was of the previous Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice it has to be the prison books fiasco. This remarkable policy — even more than the time the Ministry of Justice instructed counsel to submit to the High Court that the Lord Chancellor should be able to disregard the rule of law — told observers all they needed to know about the ways in which Chris Grayling was running his department.

The thing about the prison books fiasco was that it was not even a deliberate policy decision: the listing of books as a “privilege” in an elaborate prisoner incentive scheme was the sort of error that a bureaucracy can make from time to time. Nobody perhaps realised, or cared, that making books harder to obtain was contrary to the government’s own project of promoting literacy among prisoners. No government department is really “joined-up”. Read more

The State Opening Of Parliament

Michael Gove at the State Opening Of Parliament  © Getty Images

A curious Martian looking down at the government departments in Whitehall would not work out much about the British party political system. The alien would not grasp that there is supposedly a policy division between Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. Read more

The State Opening Of Parliament

  © Getty Images

The Queen’s Speech last week had one notable omission: the firm commitment to a new Bill within months to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and for it to be replaced with a “British Bill of Rights”. Read more

It is a misconception to say Conservatives do not “do” human rights and civil liberties — yet Tory civil libertarianism wants the benefits of a libertarian approach to policy in certain cases without the means of placing such libertarianism on a sustainable basis. So Raab’s appointment as a junior minister at the ministry of justice is an intriguing move Read more

Michael Gove

Michael Gove  © Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s Conservative party no longer has to share power as part of a coalition. Now it has a majority in the House of Commons, one of the very first things the Tories want to do is repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with something that purports to protect the rights of citizens but has a weaker connection to the European Convention on Human Rights. Getting rid of the Act is a long-standing objective of the Conservatives, and they now want to repeal it at speed.

According to the Guardian, repeal of the Act is an urgent priority for the new government:

The scrapping of the human rights act, a pledge included in the Tory manifesto, is one of the measures to be included in the prime minister’s plans for the first 100 days, when the Queen’s speech is delivered on 27 May.

The “pledge” is in the 2015 party manifesto, which contains the following statements about the Act:

We will…scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain. [...]

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. [...]

We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK.

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Procession Of Judges Marks Start Of Legal Year

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Imagine a politician making a clear and specific promise before an election. Imagine then, if you can, that politician breaking the promise when he or she is elected to office.

Is this the sort of situation where a voter should be able to go to court and obtain some legal remedy?

Usually when somebody lets you down over something important you can threaten to get the law involved. For example, if a debtor does not pay what is due, or if another driver does not take proper care and attention, you can sue the culprit.

And your rights to legal redress are not just for straightforward disputes: a well-brought legal action can halt an infrastructure project worth billions of pounds if the developer has put a foot wrong, and a judge in chancery will be perfectly happy on a Tuesday afternoon to rule that there is a worldwide complex trust preventing some absconder from misusing a victim’s assets. Where there is blame, there is usually a clever lawyer somewhere who can formulate for you a claim.

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A French national flag at the Paris statue "Le triomphe de la Republique"  (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

A French national flag at the Paris statue "Le triomphe de la Republique"  © Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

What should be the legal response to terrorism?

This question needs asking, for whatever the security problem, the political solution seems invariably to be more law. Something dreadful happens, and the response of many UK politicians and officials is “tougher powers” and another bill on the statute book.

It is almost as if the passing of a law is seen as a kind of solution in and of itself. Something must be done, and therefore something will be done.

And so in the UK over the last 15 years, we have had a Terrorism Act, then an Anti-terrorism Act, then a Prevention of Terrorism Act, another Terrorism Act, then a Counter-Terrorism Act, and most recently a Terrorism Prevention Act. Currently there is a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill before parliament.

If statutes were weapons in the war against terror, the UK would be armed to its hilt. And inevitably, the atrocities last week in Paris have prompted the prime minister and home secretary to call for even more laws to combat terrorism.

 

Part of the reason for this glut of legislation is, of course, the relative impotence of UK politicians. There is, in fact, very little they can be seen to be doing in response to any crisis other than to promote additional laws. Policy making is hard, and good policy making and its implementation is not showy. Sometimes policy making will not need any new laws at all. But for the busy and media-conscious politician, it is easier to ban something, or to create a new legal power, than to actually think through what one is doing. Read more