Magna Carta – is it such a great charter?

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has declared children must learn about Magna Carta, the 13th century deal between England’s barons and King John, which he considers “the foundation of all our laws and principles”. He knows this because he has read it in a 1905 children’s book of history, Our Island Story.

   In reality Magna Carta has little to offer the modern reader – not least because most of it has been repealed or else was suppressed almost as soon as it was issued. Here is what is left of it. So is there any point in studying it? Perhaps, but not for the Union Jack waving reasons that Cameron wants it taught – and certainly not because it demands “other people [than the king] should have rights” as he believes. Indeed, it was an attempt to protect the privileges of an elite, not the rights of “the people”.

   The background to Magna Carta was the various foolish wars prosecuted by the English kings – Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade in the Middle East against Islamic forces seeking to dismiss the Christian westerners from their tottering Levantine holdings and King John’s attempt to assert his rights over France. None of this came cheaply, so the issue underlying Magna Carta was: could taxes be levied by the king without the consent of “the people”?

   In the 12th and 13th centuries, of course, “the people” was the barons and clergy and a small number of freemen, and when the barons revolted against King John (who succeeded his brother Richard to the throne in 1199) they were revolting against both the excessive taxations, required as a result of John’s French war, and the centralised power of the state, the absolutism that had trampled over their feudal rights – the rights they had in the lands they held as fiefs of the king.

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Barkas case: Judicial anarchy on the village green

Was the Supreme Court right to overrule the leading village greens case of R (Beresford) v Sunderland City Council (2003) in its recent judgment in R (Barkas) v North Yorkshire County Council (2014; pdf)? There is a strong argument to suggest Lord Neuberger et al have overstepped the mark in declaring Beresford no longer good law – in a gross breach of the rules of judicial precedent on which our law relies. The result will be that it will be far more difficult from now on to have land designated as village greens, protecting it from development.

  The Supreme Court is supposed to accept earlier judgments of the same court, even if the current incumbents think they are wrong, unless there are very good reasons not to, such as a material change in circumstances or strong public interest. That allows for legal certainty, so people can act according to the known law, as examined and approved by the highest court in the land, rather than seek to rerun a similar case a few years later in the hope that the judicial dice might fall a different way. That is the principle that Neuberger et al have thrown to the four winds in disapproving Barkas.

   There are supposed to be limitations on the rare occasions when the Supreme Court can breach precedent and overrule itself. In particular the overruling must help to resolve the case before them. That was not so in Barkas. Lower courts and the Supreme Court itself had all resolved the case (rejecting the application to turn a piece of land in Whitby into a village green) by distinguishing it from Beresford – different facts, different law. There was no requirement to then go on to overrule Beresford – indeed the rule is that they should not go on to overrule the earlier case. But the Supreme Court Lord Justices did so anyway.

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Maria Miller affair: Are MPs over-privileged?

The Maria Miller expenses case has raised the issue of why members of the UK Parliament “mark their own homework” regarding their own ethical issues. Calls have been made to give lay members (ie non-MPs) on the Commons Standards Committee a vote on breaches of expenses rules – or to take the issue away from MPs altogether. Further, the idea of allowing MPs’ constituents to recall and “sack” MPs if not satisfied by their performance has also been raised.

Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox QC has warned against siren voices demanding a watering down of parliamentary privilege as a result of the expenses affair. That would be a dangerous constitutional change from the position in which MPs order their own affairs. If outsiders interfere “it can have the power to change history” he told the BBC’s World At One. It is a constitutional issue.

Fundamentally Cox is right. The privilege the House of Commons has to order its own affairs goes back to one of the earliest struggles with James I – who was no fan of the Parliament he was forced to work with when he became King of England in 1601.

He is reported to have told a Spanish ambassador: “The members give their opinion in a disorderly manner. At their meetings nothing is heard but cries, shouts and confusion. I am surprised that my ancestors should ever have permitted such an institution to come into existence.”

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Downey and Villiers: is there an IRA amnesty?

No amnesty for the IRA 187! That was the (apparently) tough message from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers in response to the revelation that many potential suspects of crimes during the Troubles had received “letters of comfort” suggesting they would not be prosecuted.

These have been called “get out of jail” cards by critics of the scheme, initiated under the Labour Government in the context of Northern Ireland peace negotiations. Angry Loyalists, Conservatives and others believe it amounts to an unconstitutional amnesty, never agreed by the UK Parliament. They are particularly outraged that in the case of John Downey one of the letters, sent to him by the Northern Irish police in error, caused the collapse of the Hyde Park bombing trial. His lawyers had successfully claimed abuse of process before Mr Justice Sweeney in the High Court.

So no wonder Villiers had to talk tough. But is she actually saying anything tough? Actually, no. Her speech in effect signs up to the scheme and suggests the Tories in the Government may huff and puff but will quietly leave it alone. Her statement says nothing new and changes nothing. Her main contention is this:

They [the letters] will not protect you from arrest or from prosecution and if the police can gather sufficient evidence, you will be subject to all the due processes of law, just like anybody else.”

That’s not new, tough anti-IRA bomber policy – that’s just a description of the status of the letters. They were sent to “on the runs” (OTRs) – potential suspects of often serious terrorist crimes who had moved outside UK jurisdiction. Under the Northern Ireland peace deal those convicted offenders already in prison would be due for early release – they would serve no more than two more years for their offences. But it was difficult to know how such a principle would affect those who had evaded justice – and weren’t likely to want to rush home and put themselves on trial even if two years was the maximum likely sentence.

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Anti-fracking and ‘besetting': a law against peaceful protest?

These are Dickensian times so why not revive a few Victorian laws to deal with the indigent, the pauper and the malcontent?

Thus two men caught taking discarded food from a supermarket skip were charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, after being discovered in “an enclosed area, namely Iceland [supermarket], for an unlawful purpose, namely stealing food”.

The charge was later (sensibly) dropped, but now anti-fracking protesters have been successfully prosecuted for another obscure Victorian offence: “besetting” the Cuadrilla test drilling site near Balcombe, West Sussex. Natalie Hynde and Simon Medhurst had superglued themselves to a gate and held up the entry of lorries for two hours.

So what is “besetting” – or “watching and besetting” as the offence is properly termed? And could it become a significant legal weapon in the armoury against protest?

The crucial point about the law is that it involves successfully preventing someone going about their legal work – which, of course, in the anti-fracking context, is exactly what protesters are attempting to do.

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Conservative Bill of Rights: the State v the People

Does Britain need a new Bill of Rights? This is a question that very quickly becomes a different question: “Should the state impose wider obligations on its citizens – broader than those set out in general law?”

The answer to these questions, according to Conservative voices pressing for a “United Kingdom Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” is “Yes” – but only as long as the second question is answered “Yes” first. Rights, it is said, must be balanced by obligations to the extent that, arguably, they cease to be “rights” at all. Instead they become citizenship privileges, accessible only to those who meet certain criteria of moral goodness.

The Conservative Party is shortly to publish its UK Bill of Rights, a new constitutional “settlement” that it is said will “detoxify” the human rights issue.

It is therefore worth looking at an earlier attempt to create a Conservative Bill of Rights – the private member’s Bill promoted by lawyer Charlie Elphicke in 2012. Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill – publications pdf

This is expected to be the basis of the new official Tory version (Elphicke is on the committee working on the document) – and it is rather revealing. Not only does it seek to dismiss the influence of the European Court of Human Rights in British courts, it creates a utopian vision of a Conservative society in which the people are required to measure up to standards set by the State and the State can, in certain circumstances, avoid human rights obligations to the people. Those rights become contingent rather than absolute.

This new concept of a Bill of Rights is far from the original 1689 version – a set of rights and protections that the people had against the Executive (ie the Government or at that time the Monarch). But it illustrates the problem with many such attempts to write down the constitutional underpinnings of any state – that they say a lot about current political obsessions rather than take an objective view of the likely developing needs of a particular nation.

The intention of the Conservative version, based on what we know of Elphicke’s, is to select a series of items that constitute “British values” – values that will be resistent to the claims of “human rights” made by individuals against the State and its offshoots.

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Hoffmann, Laws and Sumption: they come to bury the ECHR, not to praise it

Three giants of law have entered the somewhat confected debate on the Britain’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg human rights court. Former House of Lords judge Lord Hoffmann, current UK Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption and Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Laws have given significant intellectual underpinning to the simplistic arguments of the Conservative Party sceptics who claim to see a democratic deficit between government policies and Strasbourg judgments. The first out of the traps was Lord Hoffmann, giving the Alba seminar in October.

Lord Hoffmann
In his section of the seminar Hoffmann declared himself wholly happy with the majority view in Liversidge v Anderson AC 206 (1942).

No news there, one might think – retired judge backs even more ancient judges in 70-year-old court case. But history’s view has hitherto been different. The case hinged on an emergency wartime order used by Home Secretary Sir John Anderson to imprison Robert Liversidge (aka Jack Perlzweig) without trial and without apparent reason except to say he had “hostile associations”. Liversidge had sued for false imprisonment.

The order, Regulation 18(b) of the Defence Regulations 1939, said: “If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe any person to be of hostile origin or associations … he may make an order against that person directing that he be detained.”

The issue therefore was what is meant by “reasonable cause” – and in particular, can the court decide on reasonableness or should it simply defer to the judgment of the Home Secretary – a man in place as a result of a constitutional democratic process and there to protect us all?

Four of the five Law Lords preferred judicial deference – if the Home Secretary said there were “reasonable grounds” then that should be accepted. This is Hoffmann’s position, but lawyers and scholars have generally been more interested in Lord Atkin’s minority view: that Parliament meant there to be plausible evidence for detention; if there was not, and such evidence was not presented to the court, then the judges should declare the detention unlawful. The majority decision was, on this view, unconstitutional because it substituted the judges’ view – and indeed the Government’s view – for the will of Parliament.

Hoffmann does not seem to understand this. He takes a purposive view of the legislation and so believes the judges were right to “correct” it. Since the purpose of the statute was to protect the country from Nazi spies and the like, then the powers should be whatever was required to do that. In particular, whatever the Government (not Parliament) thought was required. The “reasonable cause” qualification could be interpreted subjectively to mean “if the Home Secretary felt he had reasonable cause”. Defence of the realm trumped constitutional niceties regarding the supremacy of Parliament.

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