Category Archives: Constitution

The Colston Four and ‘perverse’ jury verdicts: a very English tradition

The UK “Colston Four” trial of various people involved in removing the statue of the slave trader (and “philanthropist”) Edwin Colston from the streets of Bristol has focused attention on so-called “perverse” court verdicts and what, if anything, to do about them. Those lovers of England’s Common Law, Britain’s “rule of law”, trial by jury and Magna Carta (from which English jury trial may be seen to have derived) feel there is something wrong when that system allows protesters to apparently flout the law for political purpose.

Yet “perverse” verdicts are part of the great English legal tradition with almost constitutional import, greatly admired as a way of spurring social progress or resisting an overwheening authority. The believers of our great British traditions and the rule of law might perhaps be proud of the fact that occasionally a defiant jury has achieved a result of social importance through wholly legal means (bringing in a verdict).

The Seven Bishops case
A jury’s verdict does not set a precedent. Each case is on the facts; the jury’s decision cannot (in a legal sense) be impugned (unlike the rulings of judges or their summings up for juries in criminal cases).  But a  jury did set a precedent of sorts once – the ultimate precedent, that juries shall not be browbeaten by the authorities into giving the “correct” verdict. It is the precedent that underlined that juries should come to their own view on the cases before them, however angry it makes the authorities (or, in the present day, the newspaper people even before they were able to read the judge’s comments in the Colston case). The pride the British people have in the jury system (as enunciated in centuries of good old-fashioned Angolo-centric British history, none of your “woke” quasi-Marxist stuff) derives from that case: the Trial of the Seven Bishops.
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UK Parliament or Executive: which is top dog in Britain’s constitution?

The recent Brexit-related goings-on in the [2019] UK Parliament seem, in some minds at least, to have thrown up a crucial question: is Britain’s “sovereign” Parliament as important – or as sovereign – as we assume? There can be heard the steady drumbeat of those who think Parliament is a secondary part of the British constitution – and should stand aside to let the Government govern.

This is in contrast to, say, the barrister Lord Pannick in the second constitutional case launched by Gina Miller (R (Miller) v The Prime Minister 2019) on Boris Johnson’ prorogation of Parliament. Pannick was at pains to suggest, contrary to the generally held constitutional view, that Parliament (rather than simply laws passed by Parliament) was sovereign and so the Prime Minister’s power to prorogue (end the parliamentary session, dismissing MPs and peers until a new session is called) should be open to judicial oversight regarding the legality of its use, like most actions of the Executive.  

The argument against Parliament
So the question arises, which is the premier body in the British constitution, which is top dog: the Executive or the Legislature? As it happens, the historian Robert Tombs had answered this question to his own satisfaction in the Times some weeks before in a piece headlined: Parliament has no right to plot a Brexit coup.

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UK Government of National Unity? Here’s how (perhaps)

So, in light of the Brexit deadlock, we need a “Government of National Unity” according to the former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major (and others). But how do we get from here to there? He (and others) are pretty clear that a General Election would be divisive, time-wasting and pointless – not least since the two main parties are as divided amongst themselves as they are between one another. No clear “will of the people” is likely to emerge.

On top of which no one can trust the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his adviser, Dominic Cummings, not to fiddle the election date for political purpose, such as sneaking Britain out of the EU without a deal.

What are the constitutional options? Parliament, or more specifically, the House of Commons, has the power to bring down a Government in a vote of no confidence. The assumption is that this would probably lead to a General Election (under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) if no other MP was “best placed” to take over as PM. But there is also a useful traditional power for MPs to vote out the Government and then replace it without an election.

This might be a handy ploy if there really is enough cross-party opposition to Boris Johnson’s government – and majority support among MPs  for some other way out of the Brexit maze. It would mean more than simply “Parliament taking control” with the occasional anti-No Deal vote. If Parliament really wants control over deciding how Britain leaves the EU, it also needs a Government to bring its wishes into effect. 

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Do we need a modern treason law? A historical perspective

The Shamima Begum affair has – inevitably – prompted another outing for those who want Britain’s treason laws updated and reinvigorated. There seems no particular law to deal with someone who leaves Britain to marry into Isis, so why not dust off the medieval notion of treason and make it apply to Begum and her ilk?

It is an error to think that the treason law has never been modernised since the original Statute of Treasons of 1351 (still on the Statute Books here). In fact over the centuries it was updated to protect particular English and British monarchs or to deal with particular threats as and when they came up, such was the dissent that accompanied the countries’ oft-changing regimes. This list counts nearly 100 statutes as Treason Acts, some reforming legislation such as the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act, which extends the protection to female heirs apparent, others intended to crack down on the latest threat. Continue reading

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A ‘sovereign’ Parliament hamstrung over Brexit – or taking control?

The UK Parliament is sovereign – but do those who know of and respect this constitutional principle really understand how limited Parliament’s sovereignty is? Much has been said of parliamentary sovereignty in light of Brexit: by those who wish to leave the European Union to reestablish UK parliamentary sovereignty; but also by those who feel Parliament could wrest decision-making about how the UK actually leaves from the flailing Government.

In fact Parliament is not sovereign in the sense that the collective will of MPs and/or Peers in the House of Lords holds sway. It is parliamentary legislation that is, in effect, sovereign. In the traditional formulation “the Crown in Parliament” is sovereign, meaning legislation having passed its three stages in the Commons, Lords and Royal Assent will be recognised by the courts. And, for the most part, it is the Government that brings legislation to Parliament, not individual MPs or Peers (though there are exceptions: see below).

One thing MPs can do is bring down the Government in a vote of no confidence. The assumption is that this leads to a General Election (under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) – but there is also a useful traditional power for MPs to vote out the Government – and replace it without an election. This might be a handy ploy if there is enough cross-party opposition the Government’s Brexit approach – though it would amount to a parliamentary coup. The implications are looked at below (subhead: Bringing down the Government) and here in mor detail: Government of national unity? Possibly.

But generally in the great Brexit debate, Parliament has found itself somewhat constrained – hence some of the innovative procedural schemes that have come forward thanks to Dominic Grieve and others to allow backbenchers to “take back control”.

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Impeachment: its origins in Medieval England – and revival in modern Britain?

Impeachment – the ousting of presidents by the actions of parliaments and similar representative bodies – seems to be in vogue just now, whether in Zimbabwe, Brazil and now in the US in the case of Donald Trump. There is even talk of it’s being revived to deal with Boris Johnson’s shenanigans. But what is it and where did it come from?

Although most associated with presidential systems, its origins lie in medieval England, a time when the monarch’s Great Council was deemed to have the powers of a court of law.

The Council was what we know of as the House of Lords now. It was only with the early development of the House of Commons that the notion of impeachment developed. The bicameral nature of Parliament led to the interesting constitutional innovation: the idea that Parliament can put on trial ministers of the monarch for failing in their duty, even though those ministers were (and in theory remain to this day) responsible to the monarch, not to Parliament.

This is the thinking: It was accepted that “the king can do no wrong”; it followed that if the king apparently did a wrong, such as breach a longstanding agreement with Parliament, it was the king’s agent, not the king, who had done the wrong – a member of the king’s executive, one of his advisers.

The Great Council, when it was a baronial body, always had the role of a judicial body, albeit mainly to approve the legal judgments of the king. So, the argument ran, the remnant of that Council, the House of Lords (barons and bishops), could judge individuals but not bring charges against anyone. The House of Commons, however, had no such restriction, so it took it upon itself to bring charges as necessary against the monarch’s ministers to the Lords for their judgment – impeachment. Continue reading

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Brexit case Miller/Santos: third day digest

Here are some of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the third day of the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State. They concentrate on exchanges between the judges in the case and the lawyers. The original runs to 160 pages. The digested version of the first day is here. And the second day is here. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. (Note, some page numbers are included; they come at the bottom of the relevant pages ie refer to the text above). A report on the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?

The third day of this case (Oct 18)

James Eadie QC on how the Article 50 notification process would work. He notes “there will on any view be considerable further Parliamentary involvement in the future” to which the Lord Chief Justice replied “Mm-hm”.

MR EADIE: [I]f there was an Article 50(2) withdrawal agreement, that would be a treaty between the United Kingdom and the EU.

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Yes.

MR EADIE: As such, it is likely that it will come within the procedures in CRAG [Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010]. … It will be a treaty, but I say likely to fall within the procedures within CRAG, because CRAG, like the Ponsonby memorandum which it sought to embody … CRAG only applies to treaties which are subject to a formal process of ratification. See, amongst other things, section 25(3) and (4), and indeed the process of ratification which is the cornerstone of the Act in section 20. Now, almost all treaties are, but not all treaties are, subject to ratification. In other words you can on the international plane enter into an agreement without ratification necessarily following … those agreements do happen but they are pretty rare, and it is considered very likely that this agreement, if entered into, in other words the 50(2) agreement, would be a treaty requiring ratification. Of course one can’t exclude the theoretical possibility that it wouldn’t be.

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The Brexit court case (Miller/Santos): Day two digested

Here is the second part of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State for those not wishing to read the 580-odd pages of the transcript. It mainly contains Eadie’s second day arguments on behalf of the Government. They look mostly at questions put by the judges in the case and the answers. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. The digested version of the first day is here. And the third day is here. A report/analysis of the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?

The second day of the case (Oct 17)

Ms MOUNTFIELD: Since the passage of the European Communities Act, no EU treaty has ever been ratified without prior Parliamentary authority, and I submit that that is necessary because of the two otherwise inconsistent constitutional principles. The Crown can make treaties, but not if, or to the extent, that they confer rights or impose liabilities in domestic law, or withdraw rights and liabilities in domestic law.  I say that the consequence of that is that while the European Communities Act is in force, the prerogative power, either to make further treaties or to amend treaties, or to withdraw from treaties is impliedly abrogated, because otherwise it would be the Crown and not Parliament which would be conferring or withdrawing rights.If there is any doubt about that, section 2 of the European Union Act expressly provides that the Crown may not ratify a treaty which amends or replaces the existing treaties without Parliamentary authority, through various procedures.

I submit that since the purpose of that provision is to prevent the Crown from altering the foundations of EU  law as it applies within the UK without Parliamentarysanction, and we have quoted William Hague introducing the 2011 Act saying that, by necessary implication, that restriction extends to any act of the Crown which would withdraw from or revoke those treaties without  Parliamentary sanction, and thereby remove directly enforceable rights.

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The Brexit court case (Miller/Santos): Day one digested

Here are some of what seem to this writer crucial exchanges during the Brexit High Court case R (Miller and Santos) v Secretary of State. mainly to do with Lord Pannick’s first day arguments for the claimants. The links to the transcripts appear at the bottom along with quoted cases and comment. A report/analysis of the Supreme Court case is here: What if Eadie was right?

Firstly, two extracts from the first day of this case (Oct 13)

Exchange between Lord Justice Sales and Lord Pannick QC (for Miller) at page 54/55 of the draft transcript:

SALES LJ: Am I right in thinking that you  say that the effect of the argument for the government  would be that there wouldn’t need to be a repeal of the  1972 Act or section 2 of it, it is just that the content  of the obligation in section 2, EU rights, would fall  away, because they would cease to be EU rights?
16   LORD PANNICK: Precisely. Your Lordship is very aware and  I am not going to enter into any political debate, but  your Lordship knows that the government have announced  that there is going to be a great repeal bill which is  to be produced some time in the next session. I say  that the consequence of the defendant giving  notification will be that at a point in the future, it  is inevitably the case that the United Kingdom leaves  the EU and the consequence of that, as a matter of law,  is that all of the rights enjoyed under section 2(1) and

page 55
section 3(1), which is the process rights relating to the Court of Justice, fall away. There is simply nothing left. And therefore a great repeal bill, politically or otherwise, may be desirable. I say  nothing about that. It will not affect those questions.  Those rights will fall away as a consequence of the  United Kingdom leaving the EU. Because when we leave,  there are no treaty obligations. That is the whole  point of leaving. And indeed that is the government’s  intention. This is not a happenstance, this is the  whole point of notification. Notification is intended  to remove the current substance of section 2(1) and  3(1). Continue reading

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Human Rights Act: Are these cases trivial?

It may be worth while looking at a few recent cases under the UK Human Rights Act 1998 – now under threat from the Conservative Government. They aren’t leading cases but they raise the question of what counts as “trivial” in the mind of the Government (which wants to limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases and exclude “trivial” ones) and what principles the Government is seeking to abolish with the HRA. In particular why they wish to abolish the principle that:

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in [The European Convention on Human Rights] are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.” (ECHR Art 13)

For that is what abolition of the HRA means: that individuals will receive only those human rights Parliament (in effect the Government) says they should receive; and legal barriers will be put in their way of those seeking human rights justice against the State and its offshoots. Section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act makes it illegal for a public authority, which includes a court, to act in a way which is incompatible with Convention rights. That will no longer necessarily be the case.
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