News: The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Reports on Royal Consent

Parliament from river

The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee reported on the practice of Royal Consent. Royal Consent was discussed on this blog in a post by Thomas Carter Adams. The doctrine requires the consent of the Queen, or, in some situations, the Prince of Wales, before a bill which affects their personal interests is discussed in Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, the Committee recommends that this requirement be abandoned.  The Committee – like the correspondents to the earlier blog post – had some difficulty identifying precisely what type of constitutional rule this was: whether it was an aspect of the prerogative, a rule of parliamentary procedure, or a convention.  It concludes that it is a rule of parliamentary procedure, and so falls within the province of each House of Parliament to modify or remove.  The Committee concluded that the provision could be abolished by the Houses making an address to the Crown followed by a Resolution of each House.

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Alexander Horne: Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?

Alexander HorneThe dramatic increase in public law and human rights cases coming before the UK Supreme Court (and the Appellate Committee before it) means that the UK’s top court is more frequently determining essentially socio-political questions. In addition, in recent years, the judiciary has pressed for a rather more expansive definition of judicial independence, with a greater emphasis on the institutional independence of the judiciary. This has tended to lead to more powerful leadership roles, for senior judges in particular.

These changes, coupled with a greater focus – by both the judiciary and the executive – on the doctrine of the separation of powers, has resultedin judges taking responsibility for matters which, prior to theConstitutional Reform Act 2005, would most likely have been left to the Lord Chancellor (and his former Department). In the light of this expanding judicial role, now seems an appropriate time to question whether any new mechanisms for increasing political accountability, such as a parliamentary confirmation procedure, are needed for appointment to the most senior judicial offices (including, but perhaps not limited to, the UK Supreme Court, given the growing managerial roles played by the Lord Chief Justice and Heads of Division).

Confirmation processes are often dismissed out of hand – frequently with negative references to the partisan approach seen in the United States of America. Lord Neuberger (then Master of the Rolls) captured the common view of hearings before the USSenate Judiciary Committee, when he observed:

“Once you start muddying the water and involving the legislature in the appointment of judges, you risk going down a slippery slope, not quite knowing where it will end. The last thing that we want is the sort of thing you see in the United States. I do not pretend that it happens with every appointment to the Supreme Court but we all remember interviews and proposed appointments that led to something of a jamboree or a circus. I do not think that we want that.” (Evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, November 2011)

 Of courseviews on the US experience do not go entirely one way. Graham Gee has previously considered whether the lessons drawn by UK commentators are necessarily justified; suggesting that most hearings do not generate political conflict and that in any event, “hearings are not the primary source of the politicization of the process” given the important role that partisan considerations play in the President ‘s nominations for the federal bench. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that a knee jerk reaction against the US procedure remains commonplace.

Critics of hearings frequently point to the potential impact on judicial independence. In its report on Judicial Appointments, published in March 2012, the House of Lords Constitution Committee summarised many of the oft-heard objections when it concluded that:

“Parliamentarians should not hold pre- or post-appointment hearings of judicial candidates, nor should they sit on selection panels. Political considerations would undoubtedly inform both the selection of parliamentarians to sit on the relevant committees or panels and the choice of questions to be asked.”

In spite of this, issues around judicial independence and accountability are now receiving more interest from academics and some parliamentarians. The question of whether to introduce parliamentary hearings received some attention during the consideration of theconstitutional reformswhich eventually led to the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Scholars such as Keith Ewing and Robert Hazell and the former Permanent Secretary of the then Lord Chancellor’s Department, Sir Thomas Legg QC,argued that nominees for the new Supreme Court could be interviewed or confirmed by Parliament. The Study of Parliament Group published The Changing Constitution: A Case for Judicial Confirmation Hearings?, a short report by this author, in 2010.  Areport by Policy Exchange in 2011 suggested that:

“[A] more radical approach to judicial selection should at least be considered – namely legislative oversight of appointments to the Supreme Court. This would have the advantage of ensuring that judges retained their independence, but would be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny prior to their appointment.” (Policy Exchange, Bringing Rights Back Home)

And in 2012, the think-tank CentreForum published a report by Professor Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson, entitled Guarding the Guardians (the title may give some clue as to their conclusions)

The recently concluded project on the Politics of Judicial Independence, involving the Constitution Unit, Queen Mary and the University of Birmingham, is another good example – posing challenging questions about the balance between judicial independence and accountability – asking“who is now accountable for the judiciary, and to whom?” and “what are the proper limits of judicial independence?”.  Views on the subject of confirmation hearings were splitin a seminar on the subject of Judicial Independence, Judicial Accountability and the Separation of Powers, but a number of potential advantages were identified, including the fact that hearings could enhance the legitimacy of judges. Moreover, recent experience of the introduction of hearings in Canada, addressed in a series of articles (e.g. Peter Hogg, Appointment of Justice Marshall Rothstein to the Supreme Court of Canada, (2006) 44 Osgoode Hall Law Journal 527), suggest that one does not have to emulate the contentious US model.

Following in the footsteps of these earlier studies, the Study of Parliament Group has just published a new research paper, by the author of this post, entitled Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?  It seeks to address some of the conceptual arguments for greater political accountability in the appointment process and also considers the expanding ambit of judicial independence. Focusing on whether parliamentarians should have a role in the judicial appointments process, it asks what is meant by political accountability in the context of judicial appointments and considers what evidence there is that greater accountability is necessary.

The paper examines whether new methods of accountability could be introduced in the UK without impacting on judicial independence, and seeks to shed light on these questions by assessing the recent move by the UK Parliament to introduce pre-appointment hearings for other public appointments. Finally, it evaluates whether such processes are readily transferable and, if so, whether UK parliamentary committees are well placed to undertake this task.

The paper concludes that the introduction of pre-appointment hearings for the most senior judicial appointments would have a number of benefits and could help ensure that independent and robust candidates are appointed.  As to the question of politicisation, it considers that as long as there is a continued role for an independent judicial appointments commission to recruit and screen candidates at first instance, any significant politicisation of the process could be avoided.

Whether recent examples of workable models from the UK, or from other jurisdictions, can convince the senior judiciary of the merits of such a change is clearly open to some doubt. But the author hopes that this new work might nonetheless inform any future debate on these issues.

This blog post is published to coincide with the launch of a new Study of Parliament Group Research Paper on Judicial Appointments.

 Alexander Horne is a Barrister (Lincoln’s Inn) and is currently the Legal and Senior Policy Adviser at the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit. The SPG Paper ‘Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?’ is based on an MPhil thesis undertaken part-time at Queen Mary, University of London between 2010-13.  The views expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to reflect the views of any other person or organisation.

(Suggested Citation: A. Horne, ‘Is there a case for greater legislative involvement in the judicial appointments process?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (27th March 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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Cambridge conference on Public Law: Process and Substance

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In September 2014, the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Law and its Centre for Public Law will host a major international conference on Public Law. Following an outstanding response to the call for papers, the conference convenors are delighted to be able to publish the conference programme. The conference will bring together around 60 speakers—along with approximately 100 other participants—from across the common law world, to engage in debate on the theme of “Process and Substance in Public Law”. The conference will consist of four plenary sessions and fifteen parallel panel sessions. A full list of speakers, together with the titles of their papers and abstracts, can be found on the conference website here.

Information about how to register for the conference, together with a link to our secure online booking facility, can be found here. Any queries about registration that are not answered by the information on our website should be directed to the conference administrator via publiclawbookings@law.cam.ac.uk.

Further information about the conference can be found on our website. Updates are posted to our Twitter account: @PublicLawConf. The conference convenors are very grateful to Hart Publishing for their generous sponsorship of this event.

Professor John Bell, Dr Mark Elliott and Dr Jason Varuhas (convenors) 
Dr Philip Murray (assistant convenor).

 

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Scot Peterson: Constitutional Entrenchment in England and the UK

peterson_scotFrequently people think that there are only two ways address flexibility in a constitution: to legally entrench an entire document and to protect it with strong judicial oversight, or to have a political constitution and a sovereign parliament, which, in the words of A.V. Dicey, ‘has … the right to make or unmake any law whatever….’ One aspect of this sovereignty is that parliament cannot bind itself: ‘That Parliaments have more than once intended and endeavoured to pass Acts which should tie the hands of their successors is certain, but the endeavour has always ended in failure.’

Parliament has regularly used language limiting its future options. The Bill of Rights (1688) says that the rights declared there ‘shall be declared, enacted, and established by Authority of this present Parliament, and shall stand, remain, and be the Law of this Realm for ever’. More recently, Parliament promised in the European Union Act 2011 to hold a referendum on any law that increased the competencies of the EU and put in place mechanics for holding itself accountable through judicial review. Are these attempts really as pointless as Dicey claims?

The intention of the convention parliament in 1689 was to put an end to the conflicts of the preceding seventy years (interrupted by the reign of Charles II). The more recent act, too, was a product of what preceded it. Originally the Labour government had ruled out a referendum on the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe (2004), which among other things introduced new shared competencies with member states. When the press speculated about Labour’s prospects before the 2004 European Parliament Elections (June 2004), Tony Blair announced that there would be a referendum on the treaty. After the treaty collapsed (because it was rejected in France and the Netherlands), the member states entered into the Lisbon Treaty, which had many of the same characteristics as the proposed constitution. Conservatives accused Labour of inconsistency in being unwilling to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and in their manifesto promised a referendum lock on any future transfers of competencies, so that politicians would not be able to waver for short-term, political purposes. That promise became part of the coalition agreement in 2010 and was enacted into law.

The language used by parliament in both of these cases is a commitment device. It need not even be judicially enforceable to constrain (impose additional costs on) future choices by the legislature. Public embarrassment, through a newspaper’s exposure of inconsistency, is a practical means of ensuring accountability, so long as the newspapers do their job. And, as under the Human Rights Act 1998, the legislature may permit the courts to point out, but not to correct, inconsistency with entrenched law. An overly simplistic distinction between codification and a political constitution eliminates complex differences between these tools, and wastes resources that should be available to policy makers.

Scot Peterson is the Bingham Research Fellow in Constitutional Studies and Junior Research Fellow in the Social Sciences at Balliol College, University of Oxford.

(Suggested citation: S. Peterson, ‘Constitutional Entrenchment in England and the UK’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (25th March 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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Call for Papers: Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law 2014 Postgraduate Workshop in Public Law Call for Papers

The Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law in the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales invites abstracts for its 2014 Postgraduate Workshop in Public Law which will be held on 17-18 July. The Workshop is an opportunity for higher degree research students in the field of public law to gain experience in presenting their work to their peers and the wider academic public law community in a critically constructive yet supportive environment. While there are several generalist conferences held each year which postgraduate students can attend, the Centre’s biennial Postgraduate Workshop in Public Law is focused on public law issues and as such is an opportunity for students to network with others working in their area.

We invite abstracts from currently enrolled postgraduate research students (Masters, PhD and SJD students) studying full-time or part-time in the field of public law. We welcome abstracts that bring a constitutional or administrative law focus to a range of contemporary issues such as human rights protection, native title and indigenous land rights, national security, federalism, refugees and migration law, executive power, electoral law, and the judiciary.

The Workshop will follow a roundtable discussion-based format, with presenters having 15-20 minutes to speak and then ample time being left in each session for questions and discussion by all participants. The event thus provides an opportunity for participants to receive detailed feedback on their work and establish what will hopefully become an ongoing dialogue with others researching in the field. In preparing abstracts, presenters should bear this format in mind. Ideally they should aim to briefly convey the broader context of their thesis before focussing on a discrete aspect for more detailed consideration. Methodological or substantive issues may be selected as the basis of the presentation. The collected abstracts from the Workshop will be published online at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre website, enabling further contact between those attending the Workshop and others interested in their research.

We typically receive more proposals for papers than we are able to accommodate in the program, so abstracts will be refereed for clarity and suitability to a workshop focussed upon public law (broadly defined). Upon acceptance the presentations will be organised into thematic streams which will comprise the bulk of the final program for the Workshop.

Keynote

The 2014 Workshop will open with a keynote address by Professor Kim Rubenstein from the Australian National University, reflecting on her research in the public law field and how this speaks to the experience of conducting higher degree research in public law. Her paper will examine different conceptions of citizenship and membership in Australian public law and public life.

Logistics and Registration

The event, including a dinner for Workshop participants on the evening of 17 July, is FREE to all delegates, who are asked to cover their own costs for accommodation and travel to Sydney. Some limited funds are available for travel assistance to those delegates who can make a case based on special need. But we request that support is sought in the first instance from a delegate’s home institution.

To register, please send the following to gtcentre@unsw.edu.au, being sure to put ‘Postgraduate Workshop’ in the subject line:

• Your name, institutional affiliation and contact details; and

• a brief abstract of your paper (max. 400 words).

Registrations with abstracts must be submitted by 19 May 2014. Acceptance will be confirmed by correspondence no later than 2 June.

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Nick Barber: After the Vote: Regulating Future Independence Referendums

 Nick1In a few months time Scotland will vote on independence.  In my last post on the topic I discussed some of the consequences of a yes vote: the problems that would be raised around the currency, Scotland’s membership of the EU, and, more generally, the difficulties presented by the tight time-fame set by the Scottish Government for negotiation.  That post should have given wavering ‘yes’ voters pause for thought; the path to independence is harder and riskier than the Scottish Government’s optimistic White Paper claims.   In this post I will discuss one of the consequences of a no vote: its implications for subsequent independence referendums.  This post should, perhaps, cause wavering ‘no’ voters to reflect. The independence referendum is, or should be, a once in a generation chance to leave the Union.  It would be a mistake to assume that a second referendum will be held any time soon.

There are problems with constitutionalising a right to secession.  In a classic article,  written as the states of Eastern Europe were recasting their constitutional orders in the early 1990s, Cass Sunstein argued that constitutions should not normally incorporate a right to secede.  Sunstein argued that such rights inhibited the creation of a united, effective, state.  The constitutional possibility of secession might encourage regions to consider independence on a regular basis, and, on the other side of the equation, the remainder of the state will be aware of secession as an ever-present possibility.  As Sunstein argues, this may inhibit long-term planning: why should the state engage in projects that principally benefit the region, knowing that the region might leave at anytime?  And when the project benefits the whole state, but requires regional cooperation, how can the state be sure of this support?  More darkly, Sunstein warns there is a risk of blackmail.  The region can use a threat of secession to put unfair pressure on the remainder of the state.   Finally, as Sunstein points out – and as we have reason to know all too well – questions of secession tend to stir emotions more deeply than other political questions.  The intemperate character of debate around the issue can, in itself, harm the capacity of the state to act as a coherent unit.

Sunstein’s prescription – a denial of the right to secession – is not open to the United Kingdom, which has already recognised the right of certain of its territories to leave the Union.  The Northern Ireland Act 1998 contains a legal right for that territory to secede in some circumstances, and whilst Scotland and Wales lack such a legal right, it has been accepted, perhaps for quite sometime, that they are entitled to determine their own constitutional fate.  After the SNP gained control of the Scottish Parliament it was a matter of when, not if, a vote on independence would be held.

But whilst Sunstein’s prescription may be inappropriate, his diagnosis remains accurate.  The bare possibility of a second referendum after 2014 may have a destabilising effect on British politics for the reasons he identified.  The risk of a second referendum may cause the rest of the UK to be reluctant to adopt schemes or make decisions that benefit Scotland at the expense of the remainder of the country: why buy warships from Scottish shipyards, rather than from their English competitors, when Scotland may become a separate state at any time?  And, recalling Sunstein’s fear of blackmail, there is a risk that Scotland will use the threat of independence to exercise a disproportionate say over UK policy-making: agree with us, or we leave.  In short, the continued possibility of independence may frame political debate within in the UK in negative and corrosive terms, with Scotland’s interests understood as distinct from, and potentially in tension with, those of the rest of the UK.  There is a danger that the possibility of secession will lead to Scotland becoming a semi-detached part of the Union, always on the verge of exit.

This problem could be addressed by regulating the capacity of the Scottish Parliament to call independence referendums.  Under the current devolution settlement the Scottish Parliament is able to hold an advisory referendum on independence at any time.  Admittedly, this point is not beyond dispute:  most notably, Adam Tomkins has argued against this view, contending that the Scottish Parliament lacks this power, but, for reasons I have set out on this blog, I think it unlikely he is correct on this point.  The Scottish Parliament does, though, clearly lack the power to hold a binding referendum on independence: at present, this requires the agreement of Westminster.  The status of the 2014 referendum was secured after an agreement between the Scottish and Westminster Governments.   Whilst as a matter of law, the United Kingdom Parliament could still refuse to accept the outcome of the 2014 referendum, as a matter of political practice the Edinburgh Agreement is sufficient to render the vote binding.

Any attempt to regulate the holding of independence referendums after 2014 would, if the Sewel Convention were adhered to, require the support of both the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments.  Conferring on the Scottish Parliament the capacity to hold a binding referendum might render the concomitant regulation of that power more attractive.  The  Scotland Act 1998 could be amended to legally recognise what is an existing constitutional fact: that the Scottish people have constituent power, that they possess the capacity to create a sovereign state by seceding from the United Kingdom.  In addition to this, the Scottish Parliament could be accorded the power to call a binding referendum on independence.  The Scottish Parliament, rather than Westminster, is best placed to determine when the Scottish people wish to hold such a vote.

Coupled with the conferral of this new power on the Scottish Parliament should come limitations on its exercise, to mitigate – if not cure – the problems that the right to secession brings.  Just because the constitution accords Scotland the right to secede, it does not follow that the United Kingdom need accord the Scottish Parliament an untrammelled power to determine the procedures through which that right is exercised.  It is common for the constitution of a country – determined at the level of the state – to set the conditions for secession.  Having accorded a region the right to secede it would be wrong for the state, through the constitution, to limit the right in ways that make secession effectively impossible.  But it would be appropriate for the state to set conditions on the secession right that serve to protect the remainder of the state’s territories and the political community of the state as a whole.  With this in mind, the capacity of the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum should be constrained in two respects.

First, there should be a constraint of the frequency of independence referendums.  They should be rare: there should be a long period of time between the 2014 referendum and the next vote.  The capacity of the Scottish Parliament to call a vote should, then, be time-limited.  The Scottish Parliament should be given the power to call, by simple majority, an independence referendum only if (say) 30 years have elapsed since the previous vote.  Making the independence vote a rare and decisive event makes it less likely that the secession right will have the destabilising consequences identified by Sunstein. The issue is taken off of the political agenda for a substantial period of time, allowing decisions to be made at the national level without being unsettled by constant doubts about Scotland’s continuing membership of the Union.

It might be objected that such a long period between votes leaves Scotland vulnerable: what if the rest of the United Kingdom embarked on a scheme so hazardous (such as resolving to leave the European Union, for example) that Scotland’s vital interests were imperilled by remaining part of the Union?  Indeed, a benefit of secession rights is that they can give smaller regions some protection against larger units.  The time-constraint on referendums should, then, be balanced by a second measure.  The Scottish Parliament should be given the power to call a referendum at anytime by super-majority: a referendum would be held if (say) two-thirds of MSPs eligible to vote supported it.  This would be a hard standard to meet, but not an impossible one; in extreme cases the Scottish Parliament could hold an independence vote before the specified time between referendums had elapsed.

In summary, my proposal is that following a ‘no’ vote the Scotland Act be amended to empower the Scottish Parliament to hold a binding referendum on independence, but only if 30 years have elapsed since the last referendum or if two-thirds of all MSPs vote for such a referendum.

There are a number of objections that might be made to this proposal.  Practical-minded people I have spoken to warn me that it is unrealistic.  They may well be right.  If independence is rejected, the United Kingdom Government and Parliament are unlikely to have much appetite to continue to debate and discuss the issue.  The SNP is unlikely to want to accept restrictions on the chance to secure a future vote – and may regard such limitations as, in themselves, constraints on a power that ought to reside in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.  Consequently, each side has incentive to let the matter drop.  But whilst constitutional ambiguity is sometimes desirable – allowing us to avoid unnecessary conflicts  – it can sometimes store up trouble for the future.  The possibility of a second referendum will ensure that, after a brief period of quiet, the question of independence will return as a live political issue. Worse still, there is a chance that it will be harder to secure agreement between Scotland and Westminster on the significance of this referendum.  Westminster might, reasonably, decline to accept the validity of a second referendum held in the near future: it might be argued that the SNP cannot keep repeating the question until they get the answer they want.  The period immediately after a ‘no’ vote is probably the best possible time to set the parameters under which the secession right should be exercised.  Leaving it unaddressed will bring significant costs.

The recent pronouncements of the future of the currency in Scotland from British politicians have generated criticism: to some this looks like bullying, threatening the people of Scotland with the loss of the pound.  Such criticism is misguided.  It is right that Scottish voters are given as much information as possible about the likely outcome of a ‘yes’ vote.  Part of that information is the negotiating stance that will be adopted by the rest of the UK when dealing with the putative Scottish state, a political entity that will become, it should be remembered, as much a foreign country as France or Germany.  But Scottish voters ought also to reflect on the consequences of a ‘no’ vote and, ideally, British politicians should also address this question.  There may well be more powers that can be devolved to the Scottish Parliament – a ‘no’ vote is not a vote against devolution – but the vote will settle the question of Scottish independence for a generation.  It will – or it should – rule the question of secession out of political debate for a long period of time, and the Scotland Act should be amended to help bring about this end.

Nick Barber is Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Oxford University, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. 

Suggested citation: N. W. Barber, ‘After the  Vote: Regulating Future Independence Referendums’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (21st March 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

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Dawn Oliver: Does treating the system of justice as a public service have implications for the rule of law and judicial independence?

oliverIf you asked a second year LLB student, or even a professor of public law or a legal practitioner, ‘what are the most fundamental functions of judges and the system of justice?’ you would probably get ‘doing justice to all without fear or favour’ and ‘upholding the rule of law’ among the most common answers. And if you asked ‘what are the most important ways in which performance of these functions is secured?’  you would expect to get ‘independence of the judiciary’ among the answers.

But if you visit the websites of the Ministry of Justice, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, you will find no mention of these matters. These websites are mostly focused on the cost of legal aid, and criminal justice. And this notwithstanding the fact that the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 – also not mentioned on the websites – specifically preserves the Lord Chancellor’s role in relation to the rule of law (section 1(b)) and requires the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary (section 3(1)). Why are judicial independence and the rule of law not mentioned? I suggest that it is because another understanding of the nature of the system of justice has gained currency in political and bureaucratic circles, an understanding that can do great damage to the rule of law.

The system of justice has come to be regarded by many as a public service like any other – and even only that. The title of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service illustrates the point. But the trend goes back some thirty years. In 1986 a JUSTICE report stated that: ‘The courts … should be seen to provide a public service, as much as … the National Health Service’. (And presumably just as it would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State for Health to seek to pressurise a consultant to treat a patient in a particular way, so it would be inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers to ‘seek to influence particular judicial decisions through any special access to the judiciary’ (Constitutional Reform Act 2005, section 3(5)): by implication there is nothing exceptionally ‘constitutional’ or fundamental about the independence of the judiciary as compared to that of doctors.)

Since the promotion of the ‘Citizen’s Charter’ policy in 1991 the courts publish ‘charters’ for parties, witnesses and other, laying down ‘service standards’ as to delay, information, and how to complain about administration. Of course these matters are aspects of ‘service’ and do not touch upon the substance of judging, judicial independence and the rule of law. But for those who do not understand the rule of law and why it is important, it is only a small step to regarding judges themselves as only providers of services to litigants appearing before them, rather than as performers of an important constitutional role on which much of the system of government depends. I have heard it said at a Chatham House rule seminar by a senior civil servant that the role of the judiciary is not particularly special or different from the roles of doctors or nuclear regulators or anyone else involved in the running of public services.

The fundamental importance of justice, the rule of law and judicial independence are undermined by treating the system of justice as mainly just a public service: the system is different in important respects. The maintenance of the rule of law is of a different order of importance from the provision of other public services. The government and other public bodies are not ‘customers’ of, for instance, the NHS. They are often ‘customers’ of the system of justice, especially in judicial review and other public law cases and in criminal prosecutions. They may have self-serving or personal (not public) interests in the outcomes of cases, e.g. the avoidance of political embarrassment, gaining votes,  losing votes, loss of reputation, frustration in the pursuit of their favoured policies, loss of authority if they lose a case.

This ‘public service’ perspective puts some proposals for changes to the system of justice in a new light. The availability to critics of government of recourse to the courts and the independence of the judiciary can be a nuisance. What might a government do if it wanted to avoid litigation and embarrassment and enable it to get away with illegality? Just as, when developing policy in relation to the NHS, it can seek to limit access to the service (e.g. to drugs) and costs (e.g. by cutting staff, closing hospitals), so to it can do this in relation to the system of justice – but with startling consequences for the rule of law.  It could limit access to justice and deprive the courts of jurisdiction over unwelcome cases by reducing the limitation period for claiming judicial review and limiting the standing of charitable or voluntary sector bodies; it could find ways of weakening the ability of unpopular individuals (e.g. illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, convicted criminals) to pursue their claims in court by limiting their access to legal advice and representation; it could secure that unpopular parties (especially defendants in criminal cases) are less likely to win their cases, by depriving them of competent, reasonably paid representation; it could undermine the quality and thus the authority of the judiciary, deterring able practitioners from practice leading to judicial office by drastically reducing their earning capacity.

I do not allege that any of these are the conscious intentions of the government. But the overall effect of such changes, based in part on assumptions that the system of justice is just another public service, may be to undermine the independence of the judiciary, broadly understood, and the rule of law. Thinking of the system as a service obscures its special constitutional importance.

Dawn Oliver is an Emeritus Professor of Public Law at the Faculty of Laws, University College London.

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