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.
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.