Category Archives: Legal

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.

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) – 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 really is enough cross-party opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit deal – and majority support among MPs  for some other way out of the Brexit maze. It would mean more than simply “Parliament taking control”, since 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 Theresa May and her 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 to Theresa May’s Brexit deal – though it would amount to a parliamentary coup. The implications are looked at below (subhead: Bringing down the Government).

But generally in the great debate on May’s Brexit deal, 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”.

For example, hitherto one would assume that, constitutionally, MPs certainly couldn’t meet together and decide for themselves the form of Brexit they wanted – or if they did, they would have no special powers to issue legislation to ensure it did so transpire. Yet, one of the options discussed by certain soft- and anti-Brexiters was just such a plan if Theresa May’s deal fell: give the matter over to the Liaison Committee, which normally has a minor advisory role, to draft and bring forward legislation that might command support of a majority in Parliament. The Daily Mail described this as: “tearing up the Commons rule book – giving backbench MPs the power to propose legislation instead of the Government”.

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Impeachment: its historic origins in Medieval England

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 or, potentially (dare one say it) in the United States of America. 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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Monroe v Hopkins libel case: a retrograde judgment

Is it possible that Britain’s populist polemicist Katie Hopkins may be right? Perhaps, just on this one thing: the outcome of the Jack Monroe libel trial. She says the High Court judge who found against her for her inaccurate and rude tweets against Monroe was wrong and she intends to appeal. [Note: in the event no appeal was forthcoming.]

Monroe was awarded £24,000 in damages in the High Court in a row over a tweet implying the food writer and activist approved of defacing a war memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in Whitehall. Hopkins had simply confused Monroe with left-wing polemicist Laurie Penny. She deleted the tweet but then sent one out  suggesting that, nonetheless, Monroe was a pretty awful person (“social anthrax” was the term used).

In the case Mr Justice Warby noted that:

“Libel consists of the publication by the defendant to one or more third parties of a statement about the claimant which has a tendency to defame the claimant, and causes or is likely to cause serious harm to the claimant’s reputation.”

Serious harm to reputation is crucial, particularly since the Defamation Act of 2013, which enshrined the concept in legislation – with the clear intention of curbing defamation actions seen as wasteful of court time and (one suspects) irritating to the Conservative Government’s friends among newspaper owners. It says at Section 1:

“(1) A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.”

The intention was to focus on real harm and deter trivial cases. But reading the Monroe judgment, one can’t help thinking that Warby underplayed “serious harm” and somewhat overplayed Monroe’s hurt feelings once Hopkins’s loyal fans got to work on Twitter.

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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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