Constitutional law

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

  © Getty Images

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

A copy of the long-awaited Saville Inquiry report into Bloody Sunday (Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The current difficulties of the UK government in setting up an inquiry into historic child abuse raise a more general point: there seems to be an increasing — but unfortunate — reliance on “inquiries” in British politics.

The pattern is familiar: a dreadful state of affairs comes to light, something must be done, lessons must be learned, and it must never happen again.

Responsibility for determining the thing to be done, working out the lessons to be learned, and ensuring that the “it” never happens again is then handed to a specially appointed inquiry. Such an inquiry will usually be “independent” and not connected to the institutions of the state which have presumably allowed the bad thing to happen in the first place.

And this approach suits a lot of people.

As there is the appearance of immediate action, those aggrieved at the bad thing that has happened can be satisfied that “progress is being made” and those in the media who want something to report and comment on have all they need. Read more

A general view of New Scotland Yard on October 2, 2008 (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The news that the UK’s Metropolitan Police had obtained the “telecommunications data” of a journalist so as to identify his confidential source has significant implications for criminal and civil lawyers — and also for their clients.

What the Met did was simple: they merely completed a request form under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and sent it to the journalist’s mobile telephone service provider. As long as the RIPA request is approved by the appropriate senior police officer, the telephone company provides the requested information by return. This information is not the actual content of a call or voicemail — that would (or should) require an intercept warrant — but all the accompanying “metadata” (a list of calls to and from the mobile, their duration and times, and even the geographic location of the mobile during the call) as well as subscriber information.

For the police, asking for this telecommunications data is routine. Every year the police and other public authorities make about half a million RIPA requests. None of these requests need a warrant, and none need consent. Indeed, the subscriber is not even told the request has been made. All this information is provided silently and easily to the police force or other public body making the request. There are no real safeguards against abuse.

So, if the police can casually use RIPA to obtain the telecommunications data of the political editor of the Sun newspaper, is there any limit on who else they would seek this data on? And even if there was such a limit, how would anyone know that it was not being respected? Read more

The UK’s Metropolitan Police obtained the “telecommunications data” of the political editor of the Sun. They did this without his consent, and possibly even without his knowledge. They also did this without any warrant or other court order. And this intrusion has caused a media sensation.

The revelation was buried in the “Operation Alice” report of the Metropolitan Police into the so-called “Plebgate” affair about what was said (and not said) by the then chief whip of the government, Andrew Mitchell, at the gates of Downing Street in September 2012. This incident led to a senior ministerial resignation, and to four police officers losing their jobs with one also being prosecuted. There are accusations and counter-accusations, and an ongoing libel case. The published report set out part of the Metropolitan Police’s own investigation; on whether Mr Mitchell called the police “plebs” the report is inconclusive.

But deep in the report, comprising paragraph 5.120, is this short and, for many, worrying sentence:

The telecommunications data in respect of Tom Newton Dunn was applied for and evidenced.

What the Metropolitan Police appear to have done was to issue a “RIPA request” (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) to Mr Newton Dunn’s mobile telephone company for “telecommunications data”. This is not the same as obtaining “intercept” evidence of live calls and voicemails – that would need a warrant. Instead the request would have been for the accompanying data which would be held by the telecommunications provider: the relevant numbers and other details of incoming and outgoing calls, their duration, their times — even the geographical location of the mobile telephone when the calls were received or made. As one can imagine, with this amount of data, obtaining an intercept of the actual content of the calls becomes less important. Read more

The UK government is pushing through emergency legislation.

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill was published yesterday, and the intention is that it will be an Act of Parliament by the end of next week. A legislative process which usually takes up a year will be truncated into seven days. This is law-making in a hurry. Read more

What would be better than this sentimentality about a thirteenth century manuscript would be for the UK to have proper constitutional guarantees: to make it possible for a defendant to rely on his or her fundamental rights in practical case, and to make it impossible for parliament and the executive to violate these rights. But this would mean that the UK would at last have a mature approach to constitutional rights. Read more

Last weekend the Sunday Mirror reported, almost in passing, that Chris Grayling may be sacked from the UK cabinet:

So Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is expected to get the chop and be replaced by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

This would be welcome news. Mr Grayling has not been a success as justice secretary and lord chancellor, in respect of either policy making or political leadership. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a worse ministerial performance. Read more

Very few citizens of the UK appear to have any great interest in constitutional affairs. And, other than those with a passion for devolution of its constituent nations, there are probably a few hundred people who ever give constitutional reform any serious thought.

Many do not even believe that there is even a constitution in place; such things are instead what foreign folk have to cause themselves needless difficulties. A sincere concern with constitutional affairs seems the preserve of the Tory fogey or the academic radical, but is not the stuff of serious politics. Read more