Category Archives: Judiciary

Andrew Lynch: Judicial Appointments in Australia – Reform in Retreat

AndrewThe creation of formal processes governing the appointment of judges has been a notable element in the broader project of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom over the last 16 years. As is frequently acknowledged, the changes introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 were that rare thing – an instance of the executive relinquishing power. But the legislation also appeared to stimulate much more debate about the selection and composition of the judiciary than it resolved. Enactment is more typically seen as the culmination of public discussion about the desirability and design of a reform. What has been fascinating – at least from the perspective of external observers – is the way the significant measures implemented in 2005 have remained under the microscope, being the subject of sustained academic commentary, government and parliamentary review and then fine-tuning through passage of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The announcement in April that, even after all this, the Labour opposition was open to the use of quotas to hasten the diversification of the United Kingdom judiciary signaled that the whole matter of appointments remains extremely contentious.

Participating in unremitting constitutional debates can undoubtedly prove rather fatiguing, but spare a thought for those of us in jurisdictions where reform is not just both slower and more modest, but is then later reversed. Australia’s recent experience in judicial appointments reform has followed this disappointing trajectory. This is despite political rhetoric in this country consistently echoing the United Kingdom’s fidelity to ‘merit alone’ as the basis for selection albeit accompanied by recognition of the need to enhance judicial diversity. In this post I describe these developments before identifying some features of the short-lived reforms which offer an interesting contrast with the United Kingdom approach. Specifically, the provision of a shortlist of suitable candidates to the Commonwealth Attorney-General was seen as entirely uncontroversial. It arguably affirmed a more inclusive understanding of ‘merit’ in this jurisdiction, under which the preservation of ultimate executive discretion was appreciated as a legitimate means for the achievement of greater diversity.

The traditional approach of the Commonwealth of Australia to judicial appointment was one purely of executive discretion lacking any stipulated criteria and any formal or open process. Beyond an eligibility threshold of judicial service or enrolment as a legal practitioner for not less than 5 years (and in the case of appointment to the Family Court of Australia, a requirement that a person shall not be appointed unless ‘by reason of training, experience and personality, the person is a suitable person to deal with matters of family law’), there is no statutory guidance offered as to the necessary attributes of a candidate. The only procedural requirement applies exclusively to vacancies on nation’s final court – the High Court of Australia. This is merely an obligation that the Commonwealth Attorney-General will ‘consult’ with his or her State counterparts before filling a vacancy on that Court.

Shortly after coming to office in late 2007, the Attorney-General in the Labor government, Robert McClelland, announced that he would be introducing more formal processes for appointing individuals to the ranks of the federal judiciary. The catalyst for his doing so undoubtedly included, but was not limited to, developments in the United Kingdom. But additionally, there had been reform in some of the states in the Australian federation, as well as attention to the issue in both New Zealand and Canada.

McClelland’s objectives in unveiling the reforms were later repeated in the government’s 2010 publication Judicial Appointments – Ensuring a strong, independent and diverse judiciary through a transparent process. Their purpose was to ensure:

  • greater transparency, so that the public can have confidence that the Government is making the best possible judicial appointments
  • that all appointments are based on merit, and
  • that everyone who has the qualities for appointment as a judge or magistrate is fairly and properly considered

That document also stated:

The Government is pursuing the evolution of the federal judiciary into one that better reflects the rich diversity of the Australian community. To this end, the Government seeks to increase the diversity of the federal judiciary in relation to:

• gender

• residential location

• professional background and experience, and

• cultural background.

The three pillars of McClelland’s reforms may be succinctly identified as: (1) the articulation of publically available criteria; (2) the advertisement of vacancies and call for nominations; and (3) the use of an Advisory Panel (comprising the head of the relevant court or their nominee, a retired judge or senior member of the Federal or State judiciary, and a senior member of the Attorney-General’s Department) to assess potential candidates, possibly through interviewing them, before making a report to the Attorney-General listing those found to be ‘highly suitable for appointment’.

While the stated criteria had much in common with those used in the United Kingdom, the similarities between the two jurisdictional approaches do not extend much further. First, and most fundamentally, the changes were not legislated. Second, no Judicial Appointments Commission was created. Although McClelland initially professed an open mind on the need for such a body, at the same time he expressed concern that the United Kingdom’s JAC was ‘overly bureaucratic and the whole appointments process is unreasonably intrusive as well as taking too long’. This led to suspicions that ‘the best candidates have not put themselves forward’. McClelland’s negative assessment of the JAC was probably unfair given the size of the task that lay before the organisation upon its establishment and how little time had yet passed. More recent assessments from United Kingdom commentators portray the factors raised by the Commonwealth Attorney-General as teething problems since resolved.

Third, the Advisory Panel was, at just three members, small and contained no lay representatives. Fourth, the Panel was able to recommend a number of names to the Attorney-General for consideration, leaving him or her to make the final selection. This stands in stark contrast to the requirement in the United Kingdom that the JAC or, in the case of appointments to the Supreme Court, a specially-convened commission, furnish only one name recommended for appointment. Fifth, whereas the United Kingdom acknowledged the special status of its final court through adoption of a distinct process, the High Court of Australia (along with the appointment of heads of the other three federal courts) was simply exempt from the McClelland reforms on the basis of its ‘different status’. Nominations were not called for and nor was an Advisory Panel of any sort convened, although the Attorney-General undertook to consult with a number of stakeholders beyond the mandated State Attorneys. It was unclear what weight, if any, was accorded to the explicit criteria in respect of such appointments.

The basic features of the new system received the bipartisan endorsement of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its 2009 inquiry into the Australian Judiciary. McClelland’s two Labor successors as Attorney-General made judicial appointments in accordance with the reforms. However, the Attorney-General in the new Coalition government, Senator George Brandis QC, appears to have entirely discontinued those measures and reverted to the traditional approach of unfettered executive discretion. With neither fanfare nor warning, all trace of the processes initiated by McClelland slipped from the departmental website. On the topic of court appointments, the Attorney-General’s Department now simply advises that, ‘As the nation’s first law officer, the Attorney-General is responsible for recommending judicial appointments to the Australian Government.’ On 14 April 2014, the Attorney-General issued a media release announcing his first appointment to the federal judiciary. The vacancy on the bench of the Federal Court of Australia had not been advertised on the website, nor was there anything in the media release suggesting that the appointment was the outcome of any particular process.

The revival of smog-like opacity around federal judicial appointment processes has not gone unremarked, with concerns voiced about the consequences for efforts to improve judicial diversity. Justice Ruth McColl of the New South Wales Court of Appeal has said of the reversion that ‘any move that strips away progress towards greater equality of judicial appointment is, at the very least, highly problematic’.

The McClelland reforms were obviously relatively modest when compared to those of the United Kingdom. But they were certainly an advance on the customary practice. Brandis’ rejection of them is curious not only because the new process hardly constrained his power of selection to an intolerable degree, but also because he had participated in the 2009 Senate inquiry which gave its approval to the reforms. Indeed, that committee urged greater transparency upon the Attorney-General at the time – including ‘making public the number of nominations and applications received for each vacancy and, if a short-list of candidates is part of the process, to make public the number of people on the short-list’ (Recommendation 3).

While readers in the United Kingdom might sympathise with the view that this retreat from transparency and process is to be lamented, some may, nevertheless, be doubtful about the capacity of the measures introduced by McClelland to promote judicial diversity. After all, in 2012, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution was emphatic in rejecting the view of a number of witnesses who appeared before it to submit that shortlists would facilitate a swifter diversification of the judiciary. The Committee did so because, as it said, ‘unless a Lord Chancellor is committed to the promotion of diversity, the use of shortlists could have the reverse effect of reducing the diversity of the judiciary.’ That outcome is obviously possible but perhaps questionable, given broad political acknowledgment of the need for the judiciary to be more representative. Certainly it seems just as likely that diversity might be thwarted by giving serving judges too much influence over appointments, risking the self-perpetuation of the judicial class in its own image, as highlighted by Professor Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson in their report Guarding the guardians?.

Professor Kate Malleson wrote on this blog in 2012, the use of a shortlist ‘would allow for an appropriate degree of political input in the process and would open space for the Lord Chancellor to promote greater diversity though his choice of candidates while maintaining selection on merit’. That appears to have been exactly how the use of shortlists worked in Australia for appointments to the federal courts other than the High Court. The government described the Attorney-General’s role in the process as ‘identifying a preferred candidate’ from the names forwarded to him or her by the Advisory Panel. While the Senate Committee agreed that the final decision was appropriately left with the executive, it was searching in respect of how that determination was made:

If the Attorney-General identifies the most suitable person based on their assessment against the selection criteria then it is desirable for this to be articulated. On the other hand, if the Attorney-General is not willing to state that selection is directly based on the selection criteria then this should also be articulated.

While the government was apparently not prepared to risk the political danger of divorcing itself from the rhetoric of making appointments ‘solely on merit’, if everyone on the shortlist has been judged sufficiently meritorious by the Advisory Panel then clearly some other factor is the ultimate determinant. In light of the government’s stated commitment to enhancing the diversity of the federal judiciary it is not hard to imagine that the candidates’ other attributes entered the equation. Some explicit support for this conclusion is discernible from an examination of some of the announcements of new appointments made under the reformed system – with the individual’s contribution to the diversification of the bench being occasionally acknowledged by the Attorney-General.

While judicial appointments reform in Australia has gone backwards, perhaps some aspects of it offer a useful perspective on live questions in the United Kingdom debate. In particular, the way in which ‘merit’ is generally conceived is startlingly different. The House of Lords declared that shortlists were basically antithetical to the principle of appointment on merit – a view not taken by members of the Australian upper house nor voiced in a single submission from the judiciary, legal professional associations or academics to that chamber’s inquiry.

The recent amendment to the Constitutional Reform Act providing that diversity considerations may be used to determine which name goes forward ‘where two persons are of equal merit’ has been welcomed but there are concerns as to the difference it will make in practice. To Australian eyes that scepticism appears well-founded since the ‘equal merit’ provision still reflects an insistence not only that the quality of potential candidates may be objectively measured, but that this enables persons to be ranked with some exactitude. Accordingly, a dead-heat must be anticipated as unlikely – and the statute simply does not countenance merit as something that might relevantly be possessed more widely than just two individuals.

Contrast this with the candid remarks in 2008 of Stephen Gageler SC, then Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth and since appointed to the High Court of Australia:

… [A]t any time there would be fifty people in Australia quite capable of performing the role of a High Court justice. My perception is that the pool gets proportionately wider the further down the judicial hierarchy you go… The notion that appointment can only validly be based on ‘merit’ is naïve.

McClelland’s reform of judicial appointments in Australia did not reject the rhetoric of ‘merit’ as the ultimate justification for selection of individuals to serve in the federal courts. But the design of those processes effectively signalled that while merit was essential, it was not the exclusive consideration. Although those reforms have now been undone, it is to be hoped that as a result of their five years’ operation, the government cannot completely retreat behind ‘naïve’ explanations as to why one individual is chosen for judicial appointment from amongst others possessing equivalent qualifications, expertise, and professional skills.

 

Andrew Lynch is a professor and Director of the Judiciary Project at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

(Suggested citation: A. Lynch, ‘Judicial Appointments in Australia – Reform in Retreat’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (26th May 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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Andrew Le Sueur: Imagining judges in a written UK Constitution

Andrew Le SueurThe tide of interest (among those who care about these things) in the idea of a written, codified constitution for the United Kingdom rises and falls. At the moment the tide is quite high, but certainly not high enough to flow into the estuaries of government policy making.

In 2010, Richard Gordon QC —a public law scholar-practitioner at Brick Court Chambers, London —wrote a book length blue print for a codified constitution (though expressing himself tentatively in terms of aiming to stimulate a debate). In Repairing British Politics, he rejects parliamentary supremacy as a defining principle and envisages judges having broad and deep powers to enforce the constitution. As my Essex colleague Anthony King put it in a review of the book: “By implication — and notwithstanding a passing reference to ‘the available resources of the State’— unelected judges would even have the power to order other authorities to provide citizens with the aforementioned food, water, clothing, housing and free health and social care services”.

Meanwhile, across the road at the LSE, Conor Gearty is leading a “trailblazing project that invites members of the public to participate in, offer advice on and eventually to draft a new UK constitution through crowdsourcing”. On Thursday 26 June 2014, the project will be hosting a “Constitutional Carnival”when “All those involved in the project, and many others joining for the first time, will be invited to come together to have their say on what should be included in a UK constitution”. One session will be on “Where should judges fit in a written constitution?”. It will be interesting to see what emerges.

The latest contribution to the debate comes today from the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which publishes its report on Constitutional role of the judiciary if there were a codified constitution (14th report of Session 2013-14, HC 802). Chaired by veteran Labour MP Graham Allen, this cross-party select committee has been toiling away since it was set up in June 2010 “to consider political and constitutional reform, scrutinising the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in this area”. Two major planks of Nick Clegg’s agenda have fallen off the lorry since then: House of Lords reform and an alternative vote electoral system for the House of Commons. With time on its hands to mull over the bigger picture, the PCRC launched a wide ranging inquiry in September 2010 on “Mapping the path to codifying — or not codifying — the UK’s Constitution”, supported by researchers at the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies at King’s College London. Today’s report on the role of the judiciary is one aspect of that inquiry.

The PCRC’s report starts by acknowledging that the British judiciary already have a role in relation to constitutional matters, quoting examples I gave in my written evidence:

determining legal disagreements about the respective powers of different institutions within the constitution, for example between the UK Parliament and the UK Government, or between the central and local government;

dealing with legal questions about the division of powers between the UK and the European Union, under the guidance of preliminary rulings by the European Court of Justice;

adjudicating on legal questions about the exercise of powers by executive and legislative institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in accordance with the devolution settlements created by the UK Parliament;

protecting fundamental rights of individuals, including those in the Human Rights Act 1998, taking into account the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. [...]

judicial review of executive action and delegated legislation, ensuring that public bodies remain within the powers conferred on them by Acts of Parliament and operate in accordance with judge-made legal principles of (for example) fairness and rationality.

The report goes on to “welcome the fact that the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 enshrined judicial independence in law”.

From there, however, the committee feels unable to say much more about what would change, in relation to the judiciary, if there were to be a written constitution:

The role of the judiciary would undoubtedly change should the UK adopt a codified constitution, but the precise nature of that change will be difficult to assess until there is an agreed definition of the current constitutional role of the judiciary. In our terms of reference we set out to explore the current constitutional role of the judiciary but this needs further work.

That’s quite right. There are a number of different ways in which the British constitution could be “written”and each model —including a non-legal constitutional code, a consolidation Act bringing together current statute law on the constitution into a single enactment, and a full blown constitution —would have different implications for the role of judges.

Having rehearsed some well trodden pros and cons of parliamentary supremacy (and whether it should or indeed could be retained in a written constitution), the PCRC expresses interest in the idea (which I share) of a “declaration of constitutionality” modelled on similar lines to section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which would give courts power to declare that an Act of Parliament is inconsistent with a norm of the constitution without striking down the offending provision. It would then be left to government and Parliament to decide how to respond.

In a statement that will I’m sure provide inspiration to setters of undergraduate essay questions in years to come, the committee states “Before the UK could move towards a codified constitution there would need to be a precise definition of the ‘rule of law”’. I am not sure that is right: arguably, the committee gets this back to front. A better way of understanding the umbrella concept of the rule of law is to say that it includes what is written down in a constitution.

Sharing a view previously expressed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, the PCRC shows little appetite courts having power to undertake  pre-enactment review of legislation. Nor is there much support for setting up a specialist constitutional court: based on the evidence received (including mine), the report concludes that “the Supreme Court could adjudicate on constitutional matters”.

All in all, it is difficult to resist the view that the PCRC’s report is a damp squib on the big issues. It offers little new on the key question of whether parliamentary supremacy could or should be retained under a new constitutional document. To be fair, it is unrealistic to expect a cross-party select committee, midway through a larger inquiry, to say much more on this contentious issue. In the press release accompanying today’s report, the committee’s chair Graham Allan is quoted as saying “The Committee expects to publish the results of its wider inquiry into codifying, or not codifying, the UK’s constitution in the summer.” Let’s see.

In my written evidence to the committee I argued for political realism in the debate about the role of the judiciary. I said that, thinking about the topic of judges in the constitution generally, it is possible to envisage a range of possible roles.

At the maximalist end of the spectrum would be a design that (for example) empowers the judges to adjudicate on the constitutionality of Acts of the UK Parliament with a remedial power to quash Acts that are incompatible with the UK Constitution; the UK Constitution might also include legally enforceable socio-economic rights (to health, housing, education and so on); there might also be ‘abstract’ judicial review of bills before they receive Royal Assent. A design of this sort would involve a shift in the balance of power to decide matters of national interest away from the UK Parliament and Government towards the courts.

A minimalist design of the judicial role in the UK Constitution would not give the courts power to quash Acts of Parliament (so preserving the existing principle of parliamentary supremacy), would avoid creating justiciable socio-economic rights (confining rights to the civil and political ones familiar from the European Convention on Human Rights currently incorporated into national law by the Human Rights Act 1998), and would not have a system for abstract judicial review of bills.

Where on the maximalist-minimalist spectrum a UK Constitution should sit has to depend on (a) efficacy and (b) political acceptability. Efficacy is concerned with what is needed, from a ‘technical’ legal perspective, for the UK Constitution to make a real improvement compared to current constitutional arrangements. Political acceptability is about being realistic as to what political elites and the general public would find attractive or tolerable.

In the current political climate it is difficult to imagine that mainstream political opinion would accept an enlargement of the role of judges in adjudicating on legal questions that relate to controversial matters of public policy. The existing powers of courts under the Human Rights Act 1998 and in judicial review claims are regularly called into question by members of the Government and have few champions within Parliament. There is little public understanding of the role of courts in these areas and the constitutional function of the judges is routinely disparaged and misrepresented in the press. This political background against which the continuing debates about a UK Constitution take place is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Politically realistic constitutional reformers should therefore favour a minimalist role for judges in a codified constitution and provide reassurance to sceptics and opponents of judicial power that adoption of a UK Constitution need not involve the judges in novel legal tasks.

I stick to that view. At a time when the government, including the Lord Chancellor, find judicial review of administrative action unpalatable, it is not practical politics to argue for greater powers for the UK courts to strike down “unconstitutional”Acts of Parliament. Anti-judicial review sentiments were not invented by the present coalition government. Under previous administrations, ministers did not see the point of it. In 2003, David Blunkett MP, when a minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, captured what I sense to be the dominant view of all recent governments: “Frankly, I’m personally fed up with having to deal with a situation where Parliament debates issues and the judges then overturn them”.

Andrew Le Sueur is Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex and president of the UK Constitutional Law Association.

(Suggested citation: A. Le Sueur, ‘Imagining judges in a written UK Constitution’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (14th May 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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Graham Gee and Kate Malleson: Judicial Appointments, Diversity and the Equal Merit Provision

graham-gee-webmalleson-photo-2010One of the changes introduced by the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was to amend section 63 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which provides that the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) must select candidates for judicial office ‘solely on merit’. Schedule 13 of the 2013 Act clarified that making selections solely on merit does not prevent the JAC from recommending a candidate on the basis of improving diversity on the bench where there are two candidates of equal merit. This is variously known as the ‘equal merit’, ‘tie-break’ or ‘tipping point’ provision and derives from s 159 of the Equality Act 2010. After a consultation exercise last summer, the JAC last month published its policy on how it will implement the equal merit provision. In this post, we draw on research conducted as part of an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence to explain why the JAC’s policy is disappointingly cautious, limits the prospect of further progress on diversity and offers further evidence of what we believe is the excessive judicial influence on judicial appointments.

Context 

We begin with some words of praise for the JAC. Since its creation in 2006, the JAC has inter alia devised: robust processes that have for the most part identified suitably qualified candidates of good character; addressed problems that were an early feature of those processes (e.g. delays); and over time has fostered the confidence of the key stakeholders (i.e. ministers, judges and practitioners). It has done this all of this whilst becoming a leaner and more efficient operation in an age of increasingly scarce public resources. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, its budget is projected to have fallen from £7.6m to £4.85m, its staff from 105 to 67, and yet the number of recommendations for judicial office that the JAC has made has risen from approximately 450 to 750 a year. These are important accomplishments that have helped to secure the JAC’s position on the institutional landscape, something that was much less certain around 2008-09 when the then Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, considered abolishing the JAC and either bringing appointments back in-house or delegating more responsibility to the senior judges. Much credit is due to the leadership team of Christopher Stephens as Chair and Nigel Reeder as Chief Executive, who since 2011 succeeded in fostering much more constructive and cooperative relationships with the JAC, the senior judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.

All that said, we remain concerned, like many others, by the relatively slow progress in increasing judicial diversity. It is true that women constitute around 40% of the nearly 3,500 recommendations made by the JAC between 2006 and 2013, with BME candidates around 10%. It is also true that some recent selection exercises have seen women appointed to senior roles: for example, in 2013, five out of the 14 recommended for the High Court were women, while three women filled 10 spots on the Court of Appeal. Given the exceptionally small number of women in the senior judiciary, this might be deemed slow but steady progress; or as a senior judge put it to us, it might be thought that ‘the dam has broken’. But change has been slower than expected, and improvements have largely been concentrated in the lower ranks, and particularly in non-legal tribunal appointments, with the upper ranks of the judiciary remaining substantially untouched. The JAC chair himself acknowledged in March in evidence to the Justice Committee that he was ‘absolutely certain’ that there would not be an equal representation of women on the bench within five years. It is against this backdrop that the JAC’s policy on equal merit is so disappointing.

Equal Merit Policy

The JAC manages a highly formal selection process involving advertising, short-listing by tests or paper sifts, interviews and, for some vacancies, presentations or role-playing. For each vacancy, the JAC must recommend a single candidate to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice or Senior President of Tribunals, depending on the vacancy. Under its new policy, where two or more candidates are assessed as having the skills, experience and expertise that result in them being considered equal when assessed against the selection criteria, the JAC may apply the provision ‘to give priority to the candidate with declared protected characteristics which are the least well represented in the office to which they are being recommended for appointment’. In devising this policy, the JAC faced two critical questions. First, should the provision apply to all stages of the selection process, including short-listing, or just once at the final stage where the JAC makes its recommendation? Second, to which groups of people should the equal merit provision apply? The JAC answered both questions very narrowly, adopting what its chair has conceded is ‘a fairly minimalist’ approach.

The JAC will apply the provision only at the final selection stage. This blunts the provision’s potential to increase diversity. As we see it, the premise that there may be candidates exhibiting different strengths and weaknesses who are considered of equal merit is relevant to short-listing and final selection. Applying the provision at short-listing could help remove barriers that might prevent non-conventional candidates being called for interview. The JAC has further limited the provision’s potential by applying it only to race and gender. It has done so on the grounds that the provision should only be used where under-representation can be demonstrated by reference to published data. We recognize there are practical difficulties related to the availability of reliable data for some of the ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010. However, the JAC needs to be more proactive in widening the number of protected groups to whom the equal merit provision can apply. This means collecting reliable data for groups other than race and gender. We further recognize that collecting personal data can be problematic; for example, many applicants in the judicial appointments process seem reluctant to disclose personal data. But this is a problem with which many organizations are grappling as they implement important equality and diversity legislation. The JAC needs to devote more time and resources to being a pioneer on such matters rather than reacting to developments elsewhere. A more pioneering and proactive approach would be consistent with the JAC’s duty to ‘have regard to the need to encourage diversity in the range of persons available for selection’.

Several commentators question whether the provision will make much difference to the composition of the judiciary. In particular, some doubt whether there really will be many occasions where two or more candidates are deemed equal, all things considered. After all, the JAC’s Chair suggested in late 2011 that there had been no two broadly indistinguishable candidates out of the 500 recommendations made by the JAC since he assumed office earlier that year. If it is indeed the case that the JAC is always able to distinguish between candidates, then it would be unsurprising if many were to agree with Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson that the equal merit provision ‘runs the risk of marking merely another positive headline backed by very little positive impact in terms of addressing the glaring diversity deficit’. However, we prefer the position of the former JAC Vice-Chair, Lady Justice Hallett, who has suggested that it is not ‘as rare as people think that you have candidates who are equally qualified’. To grasp the potential of the equal merit provision requires a certain attitude—and perhaps a change of attitude amongst some currently serving on the JAC—about the type of assessments made by selection panels when faced with candidates with different but commensurable judicial qualities.

In short, the provision has the potential to be a useful tool to address the diversity deficit. However, as narrowly interpreted by the JAC, the equal provision is likely to have very little impact. If the JAC was strongly committed to using it in its full extent, was willing to apply it at more than one stage of the selection process, and to apply it to a wider range of protected characteristics, the provision could make a difference. The decision to use it in this very limited way is ultimately a political decision about the weight given to diversity. The question that arises is this: why is the JAC seeming to place so little weight on the issue of diversity?

Judicial Influence on Judicial Appointments

On our reading, the JAC’s extremely narrow policy on the equal merit provision is potential evidence of the excessive judicial influence on judicial appointments. We have pointed to the high—and, in our view, too high—levels of judicial influence on JAC-run selection processes in previous posts on this blog; see here and here. In a forthcoming book (with Robert Hazell and Patrick O’Brien), we argue that although senior judges acknowledge the lack of diversity, and seem genuinely keen to see change, they have for the most part resisted initiatives that are designed to bring about a much faster transformation. We also argue that over time, and over several different issues, the JAC has become less willing to challenge senior judges over this. As one of our interviewees put it, the senior judges are ‘very effective’ in achieving their ‘desired outcomes’ when interacting with the JAC.

We suspect that the policy on the equal merit provision is a further product of the high levels of judicial influence on the judicial appointments processes. Over half of the responses to the JAC’s consultation exercise on the equal merit policy were from judges and their representative bodies. There were also lengthy discussions in private between the JAC, the senior judges and the Ministry of Justice. Possible evidence of the influence of judicial concern about equal merit can be seen in the comments of the JAC Chair in his evidence before the Justice Committee: ‘[t]here is serious caution among many…the stakeholders…are cautious about [the equal merit provision]’. If we are correct in suspecting that judicial caution is largely responsible for the JAC adopting such a narrow policy on equal merit, then this merely underscores that the challenge confronting the appointments system in the years ahead is less the threat posed by inappropriate ministerial interference, but the cumulative consequences of excessive judicial influence.

Conclusion

The JAC will report the number of occasions the equal merit provision is applied in its twice-yearly Official Statistics Bulletin. It has also committed to keeping the provision under review. We welcome this. And plainly, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and even the JAC’s narrow policy may have more of an impact than we predict. On the basis of the narrowness of its policy, however, there is reason to suspect that this may prove to be another missed opportunity for the JAC to send a strong signal of the importance it attaches to diversity.

Graham Gee is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Kate Malleson is a professor at Queen Mary. Together with Robert Hazell and Patrick O’Brien from the Constitution Unit at University College London, they recently completed an AHRC-funded project on “The Politics of Judicial Independence”.

 

(Suggested citation: G. Gee and K. Malleson, ‘Judicial Appointments, Diversity and the Equal Merit Provision’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (6th May 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)).

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Tarunabh Khaitan: NALSA v Union of India: What Courts Say, What Courts Do

khaitan_tarunabhThe Indian Supreme Court has recently delivered an important judgment in the case of National Legal Services Authority v Union of India (NALSA). A two-judge bench comprising Justices Radhakrishnan and Sikri declared, among other things, that hijras (a traditional Indian male-to-female trans group) must be treated as a ‘third gender’ for all legal purposes, and that transpersons in general have the right to decide whether they want to be identified as male, female or belonging to the third gender. [129] (Given the specific declaration that hijras belong to the third gender, it is not clear whether the general right to choose one’s gender is available to hijras too, or only other transpersons.) The Court also issued a number of other directions to the state—remarkable in their breadth and, perhaps for that reason, vulnerable to remaining unimplemented.

In some respects, this judgement is in sharp contrast to the one delivered by another bench of the same Court in December 2013. In Koushal v Union of India, two other judges had overturned a Delhi High Court judgment declaring the criminalisation of sodomy to be unconstitutional. In effect, Koushal recriminalized India’s LGBT minority after a brief and hard-won respite from the Delhi High Court (the Koushal ruling still stands and is not affected by NALSA, although the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a ‘curative petition’ seeking its review by a larger bench).

Unlike Koushal’s complete failure to appreciate the counter-majoritian judicial function in a constitutional democracy, the NALSA judges are acutely aware of their special duty to protect a ‘marginalised section of the society’ which is ‘very small in number’ [118, 82]. Contrary to Koushal’s rejection of comparative law, NALSA is replete with lengthy references to international and foreign judgments and legislation, surprisingly including material not only from the usual Western liberal democracies but also India’s less liberal and less democratic neighbours such as Pakistan and Nepal [21-42, 70-73].

Unlike Koushal’s miserliness in understanding the scope of fundamental rights, NALSA adopts expansive interpretations of fundamental rights. The right to equality in Article 14 is read to include positive obligations (such as the duty to take affirmative action and make reasonable accommodation) [54, 88]. The right against discrimination in Articles 15 and 16 is read to prohibit not only direct but also indirect discrimination [59]. Prohibition of discrimination on the ground of ‘sex’ specified in these Articles is read to include a prohibition on discrimination based on gender identity [59]. The court compares gender identity to the paradigm ground in Indian discrimination law—caste—by acknowledging that transpersons are treated like ‘untouchables’ [1]. It also sees the parallels between the protection of disability and that of gender identity [112]. Noticing such continuity between different forms of discrimination is rare for Indian courts.

The Court especially notes Articles 15(4) and 16(4), which allow the state to make special provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes. The judgment doesn’t fully explain how this constitutional permission can lead to the conclusion that the state ‘is bound to take some affirmative action for their advancement so that the injustice done to them for centuries could be remedied’ [60, emphasis supplied]. One possibility is that the Court is relying on its earlier premise that the right to equality under Article 14 imposes positive as well as negative obligations. Alternatively, the Court may be implying that once the state relies on the constitutional permission to take affirmative action for some backward classes, it must do so for all of them. It would have been better if the Court had clarified the precise reasoning behind the directions to the state to extend affirmative action benefits to transpersons—effectively a recognition of a right to affirmative action [60, 129].

The right to freedom of expression in Article 19 is read expansively to include the freedom to express oneself through dress, words, action, behaviour etc [61]. Thus, gender-non-conforming dress and behaviour are constitutionally protected. The right to life and personal liberty under article 21 is declared to rest upon notions of positive freedom, personal autonomy, self-determination and human dignity and not simply freedom from unjustified state interference [67, 69, 99, 101, 102]. Thus, the state has a duty to enable transpersons to be free in the positive as well as the negative sense.

The remedies that the court grants are also very interesting. Three directives have already been mentioned: that hijras are now recognised as the third sex, that transpersons have the right to choose between being male, female or belonging to the third gender, and that transpersons are to be given affirmative action benefits, since they are a ‘backward class’. The Court goes on to give a slew of other directions, including some very specific orders (direction to provide specific toilets and HIV care centres for transpersons), some rather broad ones (direction to provide them with medical care in all hospitals, to frame various social welfare schemes for their betterment, and to take steps to create public awareness to ensure their social inclusion) and some wonderfully imprecise ones (direction to seriously address problems being faced by them and to take measures to ensure a respectful place for them in social and cultural life). To top it all, the Court notes that the government has already constituted an ‘Expert Committee’ to study the problems faced by the transpersons. Without specifically mentioning what its findings or recommendations actually are (the Committee submitted its report in January 2014), the Court orders the Executive to implement its recommendations within six months.

It is only when we examine the remedies the Court grants in NALSA that we can see a common understanding of the judicial function with the Koushal bench. I had argued in a previous post that the Koushal Court wasn’t being deferential to Parliament in refusing to hold the colonial anti-sodomy provision unconstitutional. On the contrary, the judgment showed a characteristic lack of respect for separation of powers. The NALSA judges are much more benign and progressive, with a much better understanding of the counter-majoritarian judicial role than the Koushal judges. But when it comes to its attitude to the legislature, they match Koushal’s contempt for Parliament with indifference.

Its champions as well as its critics agree that the Indian Supreme Court does not generally waste much time worrying about separation of powers. It makes drastic and frequent forays into the legislative domain with little hesitation. This is broadly true, but the manner in which these incursions are made is interesting and NALSA offers a good illustration. In its social rights jurisprudence, one can see two very different types of remedies provided by the Court. On the one hand, one sees judicial legislation, usually in the form of an endorsement of a policy or a set of recommendations framed by the Executive, like the recommendations of the Expert Committee in this case. These recommendations are often precise and detailed, and therefore legislative in character. Frequently the government lawyer would have informed the Court of the Executive’s support for these recommendations. What the Court effectively does is collude with the Executive to stamp consultation documents and ad hoc committee reports with constitutional authority, entirely bypassing Parliament. In fact, faced with an un-obliging Parliament paralysed by obstructionist politics, governments often find it easier to legislate through the courts than through Parliament. Even in Koushal, the government had—rather unusually—admitted before the Court that the criminalisation of sodomy was unconstitutional. It would have very much liked the Court to affirm the Delhi High Court order, one that it had chosen not to appeal. Ministers publicly endorsed gay rights only after the court refused to play ball, but the Executive response was to seek judicial review rather than go to Parliament. The Indian courts are no doubt legislating. But on the whole, the initiative remains with the Executive. Courts have simply become a parallel, albeit less predictable, forum for endorsing legislative proposals that still originate from the Executive.

On the other hand, there are orders that are so expansive and vague that it is impossible to hold anyone to account for failing to implement them. The Court must know that its overbroad directive to take measures to help transpersons is capable of neither implementation nor breach. However, the Court is not simply interestes in whether its vague orders are implemented—it also cares about participating actively in and shaping the political discourse on various issue. The Indian SC is an explicitly political institution which does not pretend to be otherwise. Even in NALSA, the judges are very clear that law must transform social realities [119]. The Koushal judges were very keen to ensure that the law did not disturb the social status quo. Both positions, although diametrically opposed, are self-consciously political. Of course, all courts are political. The difference in India is that judges are not coy about acknowledging this reality. Whether this honestly is a virtue—or whether at least the judicial pretence of functioning outside politics nonetheless imposes useful restraints on courts—is a matter for another day.

The reason that Indian courts spend time penning these unimplementable orders is that they know it is not just what they do that matters, but also what they say. As prominent political players whose words carry a lot of weight in the public discourse, these expansive and vague directions are not simply pious platitudes. They will be relied upon by activists, reported by the media, debated by politicians and as soft-law instruments lay the foundations for future judicial and legislative development. Like its legislative role, the Indian Supreme Court has adopted a very expansive understanding of its expressive function. Debates on separation of powers need to consider the proper limits not only of what courts do, but also what they say.

 

Tarun Khaitan is the Hackney Fellow in Law at Wadham College and Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford.

(Suggested citation: T. Khaitan, ‘NALSA v Union of India: What Courts Say, What Courts Do’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (24th April 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)).

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Robert Leckey: Constitutionalizing Canada’s Supreme Court

Professor Robert Leckey CROSS-POSTED FROM THE I.CONNect BLOG.

A dispute over the legality of a politically questionable judicial appointment has resulted in what pundits call a stinging defeat for Canada’s prime minister and a bold assertion by the Supreme Court of Canada of its independence and constitutional status.

Recently, in Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss. 5 and 6, 2014 SCC 21, the Court advised that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment of the Honourable Mr. Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada was void. He had been sworn in five months earlier. On a six-judge majority’s reading of the Supreme Court Act, Justice Nadon was unqualified to fill one of three spots reserved for jurists trained in the law of Quebec. Quebec is the federation’s sole civil-law jurisdiction and the only province with a French-speaking majority.

In addition, the Court opined that the Parliament of Canada’s ex post amendments to the Supreme Court Act purporting to clarify that Justice Nadon was eligible were unconstitutional. They amounted to a constitutional amendment requiring the unanimous consent of Parliament and all provinces.

While many had criticized the political wisdom of the prime minister’s selection of a semi-retired judge on nobody’s shortlist, the constitutional issues turn on the interpretation of the Supreme Court Act and of the country’s constitutional amending formula.

General qualifications for appointment appear in section 5 of the Supreme Court Act. It refers to current and former judges and to a person who “is or has been” a lawyer of at least ten years standing at the bar of a province. The controversy bore on section 6’s specification that three justices be drawn “from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province.” Justice Nadon came instead from the Federal Court of Appeal. Although formerly a member of the Quebec Bar for more than ten years, he was no longer a member. Using a process set out in the Supreme Court Act, the federal executive referred questions to the Court for its opinion.

The validity of the initial selection of Justice Nadon turned on the relationship between the Act’s general and specific provisions and the significance, if any, of the different wording in sections 5 and 6 (“is or has been,” “among”). The majority of the Court concluded that Quebec appointments needed to be current judges of the named Quebec courts or current members of the Quebec Bar. Those judges stated the primary basis for their decision to be the Act’s plain meaning and the differences in wording. A single judge dissented.

It is striking for an apex court—even when the government asks it to weigh in—to reject an appointment to its ranks on the basis that the government had misinterpreted the relevant statute. But the Court went further. It grounded a formalistic exercise of statutory interpretation turning on the niceties of “is or has been” versus “among” in the historic compromise guaranteeing one-third of the Court’s judges to Quebec. For the majority justices, their interpretation of section 6 advanced the “dual purpose of ensuring that the Court has civil law expertise and that Quebec’s legal traditions and social values are represented on the Court,” maintaining that province’s “confidence” in the Court (para. 18).

Exaggerating the opinion’s political salience would be difficult. At a moment when Quebec is governed by a separatist party, and less than three weeks before Quebecers vote in a provincial general election, the Supreme Court of Canada explicitly declared itself to be an institution that guarantees a voice for Quebec’s “social values” in federal institutions. Commentators read the entire judgment as a declaration of the Court’s independence from a prime minister and executive perceived as disdainful towards democratic institutions and tone-deaf regarding Quebec. By implication, the majority’s reasoning made the choice of Justice Nadon not only formally invalid, but also substantively disrespectful of Quebec. One can speculate on the depth of the majority’s commitment to this substantive point by asking whether it would have upheld the appointment had the federal government named Justice Nadon to an eligible Quebec court the day before appointing him to the Supreme Court.

The opinion’s most enduring contribution, though, arises from its answer to the question concerning Parliament’s attempt to amend the Supreme Court Act. Parliament had created the Court by statute in 1875. The Court did not replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the federation’s tribunal of last resort for nearly three-quarters of a century. In its final legislative exercise for Canada, the Parliament of the United Kingdom brought into life the Constitution Act, 1982. The latter lists instruments that the Constitution of Canada includes, but does not mention the Supreme Court Act. Nevertheless, the new constitutional amending formula refers twice to the Supreme Court. The Court appears among the “matters” amendable by Parliament with the consent of a majority of provinces. Its “composition” figures among the “matters” amendable only on unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces.

In opining that Parliament’s attempt to modify the Supreme Court Act to clear the way for Justice Nadon was unconstitutional, the majority stated that reference to the Court’s “composition” in the amending formula constitutionalized sections 5 and 6 of the Act. By implication, it also constitutionalized the Court’s continuing existence, “since abolition would altogether remove the Court’s composition” (para. 91). The majority added that the more general reference to the Court constitutionalized its “essential features … understood in light of the role that it had come to play in the Canadian constitutional structure by the time of patriation” (para. 94). In effect, the amending formula drastically reduced the scope for change to the Supreme Court by ordinary federal statute.

Moreover, the Court confirmed that the sources of the Constitution of Canada now include not only the previously known hodge-podge of royal proclamations, imperial statutes and orders in council, federal statutes, and unwritten principles. Those sources also include parts of another federal statute, the Supreme Court Act—some provisions identified by number as well as whatever might in future be determined to embody the Court’s “essential features.” Indeed, by referring to the “role” that the Court has come to play, the majority judges hint that the Court’s constitutionalized features may not track directly to specifiable legislative provisions, instead arising from practice. Presumably the same applies to other institutions that the amending formula constitutionalized, such as the Senate of Canada, on which the Court will pronounce in due course.

Whatever the political fallout for the prime minister, the Court’s advisory opinion merits careful attention by those who study sources of constitutional law, amending formulae, and how institutions’ constitutional status may change over time.

Robert Leckey is an Associate Professor of Law and William Dawson Scholar at the Faculty of Law, McGill University. He is scheduled to speak in the United Kingdom and South Africa about his forthcoming book Bills of Rights in the Common Law on the following dates in 2014: King’s College London – 12 May; Oxford University – 13 May; Unisa, Pretoria – 15 May; Cape Town – 19 May; University College London – 17 June; London School of Economics – 29 October. Further details for these talks may be obtained from the venues hosting the talks.

(Suggested Citation: Robert Leckey, Constitutionalizing Canada’s Supreme Court, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 25, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/03/constitutionalizing-canadas-supreme-court  or R. Leckey, ‘Constitutionalizing Canada’s Supreme Court’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (1 April 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

 

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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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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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Alan Bogg and Virginia Mantouvalou: Illegality, Human Rights and Employment: A Watershed Moment for the United Kingdom Supreme Court?

boggav_mantouvalouUnder what circumstances can the illegal work status of a migrant worker bar a statutory tort claim for race discrimination through the common law doctrine of illegality? Such a question is due to be considered later this month by the United Kingdom Supreme Court in an appeal from the Court of Appeal decision in Allen v Hounga. Ms Hounga arrived in the UK from Nigeria in 2007 to work as a domestic worker for Mr and Mrs Allen. Her age was indeterminate but she may have been as young as fourteen when she entered the arrangement. Despite the promise of schooling, Ms Hounga never had an opportunity to get an education, and it was alleged that she suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of Mrs Allen. Eventually, she was ejected from the house and, having slept rough, Ms Hounga was found wandering in a distressed state in a supermarket car park. According to the Court of Appeal, Ms Hounga’s race discrimination claim was ‘inextricably bound up’ with the illegality in question and so to permit her compensation would be to appear to condone her unlawful conduct. In the eyes of many commentators, Hounga marked a new low for common law reasoning in the sphere of statutory employment rights. This was compounded by the context of legally sanctioned exploitation of a particularly vulnerable migrant worker, whose vulnerability had been constructed by the legal order in the first place, a situation that can also be described as ‘legislative precariousness’.

The narrowest approach to the legal issue would be to consider the Court of Appeal’s holding in Hounga with respect to legal authority. Rimer LJ in the Court of Appeal purported to follow the approach to illegality set out in the earlier case of Hall v Woolston Leisure. In Hall the Court of Appeal had insisted on a strict causation test. In Hounga this had been loosened to encompass situations where the illegality was merely ‘linked’ to the discrimination claim. Perhaps a better approach to formulate the question in the way that Lord Hoffmann did in the House of Lords decision in Gray v Thames Trains: ‘Can one say that, although the damage would not have happened but for the tortious conduct of the defendant, it was caused by the criminal act of the claimant? …or is the position that although the damage would not have happened without the criminal act of the claimant, it was caused by the tortious act of the defendant?’ If we pose the question in this way on the facts in Hounga, then the gist of the tort – the violation of Ms Hounga’s right not to be discriminated against because of her race – was caused by the tortious act of the defendant. That should be the end of the causation enquiry. And perhaps the Supreme Court might be content to dispose of the case on that narrow basis, ensuring the internal coherence of the common law doctrine of illegality in accordance with the precedents in Hall and Gray. Certainly, there are recent examples of the Employment Appeal Tribunal dealing with the illegality doctrine in a manner that is more sensitive to the various legitimate interests at stake, while reasoning within the four corners of the illegality doctrine.

There is a larger set of perspectives, however, given that Hounga sits at the intersection between labour law, human rights and migration law. Rather than refine the common law doctrine of illegality and ensure its internal coherence, it may be appropriate to consider whether illegality should have any role at all in this regulatory sphere. It might be helpful to consider this from two different vantage points, one that characterizes Hounga as a ‘labour law’ case; the other of which characterizes Hounga as a ‘migration’ case. It might be useful to regard both kinds of approach as based upon an anti-exploitation principle, which would set itself against unfair-advantage taking in the employment context. From a labour law perspective, the unfairness consists in the violation of legal rights that exist for the protection of those engaged in personal work. From a migration law perspective, the unfairness consists in the targeting of an especially vulnerable group within the wider category of personal work relations, viz migrants working illegally. Human rights issues arise in both of these perspectives.

If we take first the ‘labour law’ perspective, there is a respectable argument to be made that there is something special about labour rights, or a subset of labour rights that can be classified as human rights, that means that illegality should be excluded entirely from this regulatory context. At its broadest, it is possible to argue that all labour rights should be insulated from the illegality doctrine. Labour rights, such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed or working time protections, are not simply rights that benefit the individual worker implicated in illegality. These rights are also justified in their contribution to a wider public good, ensuring a culture of respect for workers’ rights in a well-functioning labour market that promotes decent work. Illegality should not be permitted to impede this public good by inculcating an ethic of disregard for employment rights amongst unscrupulous employers. Illegality also adds an extra incentive to employ undocumented migrant workers by ensuring a supply of labour that is cheaper still through the denial of basic employment rights. An intermediate labour law approach might be to focus on those employment rights that are reciprocally bound up with the provision of work, so that denial of the right corresponds to an unjust enrichment for the employer who has already had the benefit of the work. The obvious example here is the provision of back pay or the right to paid annual leave.

The narrowest labour law perspective would focus on a tighter category of fundamental human rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against because of race or sex, the prohibition of forced labour or freedom of association. The fundamentality of these human rights means that any illegality of the claimant should be disregarded. There would be something unconscionable for a legal system to permit the violation of fundamental human rights in circumstances of illegality; it would undermine the “integrity of the legal system” which, after all, is one of the functional concerns of the illegality doctrine itself. In Hall both Peter Gibson L.J. and Mance L.J. identified the sex discrimination claim as vindicating the claimant’s fundamental human right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sex. This fundamental rights dimension was a vital factor in insulating the statutory tort claim from the doctrine of illegality. This labour law perspective, focused on the nature of the legal right, would treat the migration dimension to Hounga as part of the background context, but not especially salient. It might be regarded as an extra attraction of this approach that in avoiding a focus on whether labour was forced or a person was trafficked, it avoids the implicit legitimization of other situations where an employer violates the fundamental human rights of workers (whether or not migrants) behind the protective cloak of illegality.

By contrast, the ‘migration law’ perspective would focus on the distinctive nature of the claimant in Hounga as a member of an especially vulnerable group within the labour market. In respect of their labour rights, undocumented migrant workers are effectively ‘outlaws’. The doctrine of illegality exacerbates their existing vulnerability through the law, and makes them even more prone to exploitation than other migrant workers. This seems difficult to defend even from the perspective of migration policy itself. For just as migration policy is concerned to regulate and restrict migration, it is equally concerned to ameliorate the circumstances of extreme exploitation that can be classified as ‘modern slavery’, which might be thought to characterize the situation of claimants such as Ms Hounga.

In terms of European human rights law, this situation can raise issues under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which may provide the tools to address workers’ exploitation in certain circumstances. The Convention protects the rights of everyone within the Contracting States’ jurisdiction (article 1 ECHR), without drawing any distinction on the basis of nationality. Article 4 of the ECHR, which is an absolute provision, prohibits slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has previously examined the exploitation of a migrant domestic worker in the case of Siliadin v France, which had similarities with Hounga (but without the element of physical abuse). The ECtHR recognized the applicant’s vulnerability, whose passport had been confiscated, and ruled that she was held in servitude, forced and compulsory labour, which should be criminalized. Even though the focus was on criminalization, the Court did not rule out that other labour protective legislation may be required. In terms of the legal regime that the doctrine of illegality sets up for the undocumented, the case Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia is also important to highlight. In that case, which involved a victim of sex trafficking, the ECtHR held that an immigration regime (that of the ‘artiste visa’ in that case) limited the freedom of Rantseva to such a degree that it violated article 4. The doctrine of illegality may raise similar issues, as it limits the undocumented workers’ freedom to an extreme, leaving them in a legal black hole.

The prohibition of discrimination (article 14 ECHR) taken together with the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions (article 1 of Protocol 1 ECHR) may also be at stake in cases of an illegal contract of employment. Should a worker not be awarded her salaries, the Court may view this as discrimination in the enjoyment of her possessions, as salaries have been classified as possessions in the case law. The ECtHR has explored the social rights of a documented migrant in Gaygusuz v Austria, and ruled that for a difference of treatment on the basis of immigration status to be justified, ‘very weighty reasons would have to be put forward before the Court’. The control of immigration may be a legitimate aim, but the means employed to meet the aim may violate the Convention.

The ECtHR has not examined the rights of undocumented workers under the prohibition of discrimination in conjunction with other Convention rights. However, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights addressed the issue in its advisory opinion ‘Juridical Condition and Rights of the Undocumented Migrants’. In this context, the Court referred to the vulnerable status of migrants and emphasised that their human tights should be protected regardless of their legal status. It stated that workers’ rights can only be dependent on the status of someone as a worker, and not on the status of someone as a lawful migrant:

‘Labor rights necessarily arise from the circumstance of being a worker, understood in the broadest sense. A person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity, immediately becomes a worker and, consequently, acquires the rights inherent in that condition […] [T]he migratory status of a person can never be a justification for depriving him of the enjoyment and exercise of his human rights, including those related to employment.’

This opinion suggests that fundamental labour rights found in legislation cannot be made conditional upon immigration status because this violates the prohibition of discrimination. The Inter-American Court accepted that states have a sovereign power to deny employment to undocumented migrants. However, once they are employed, they should be protected equally to other workers. The list of rights that undocumented workers must enjoy, on this analysis, does not only include the ILO’s fundamental rights at work. It also encompasses fair pay, reasonable working hours, health and safety rules and other fundamental labour rights.

Hounga is possibly the most important employment case yet to be considered by the United Kingdom Supreme Court. We hope that it takes the opportunity to step beyond the formalism of a narrow approach to the illegality point, sensitive to the wider human rights issues. Nothing less than the integrity of the English legal system is at stake.

Alan Bogg is Professor of Labour Law; Fellow and Tutor in Law, Hertford College, University of Oxford.

Virginia Mantouvalou is Reader in Human Rights and Labour Law and Co-Director of the Institute of Human Rights, University College London (UCL).

This piece has also been endorsed by Professor Hugh Collins (Oxford), Dr Nicola Countouris (UCL), Dr Cathryn Costello (Oxford), Professor Mark Freedland (Oxford), John Hendy QC (UCL) and Professor Tonia Novitz (Bristol).

Suggested citation: A. Bogg and V. Mantouvalou,’Illegality, Human Rights and Employment: A Watershed Moment for the United Kingdom Supreme Court?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (13th March 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)

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Adam Perry and Farrah Ahmed: Are Constitutional Statutes ‘Quasi-Entrenched’?

AdamFarrahThe Supreme Court issued its decision in H v Lord Advocate (pdf) in 2012. The decision has been virtually ignored by constitutional scholars, but we believe it may be of great constitutional significance. In this post we explain why, starting with some background about constitutional statutes.

Commentators have lately considered how constitutional statutes should be interpreted (for example Tarunabh Khaitan on this blog), and what exactly makes a statute ‘fundamental’ or ‘constitutional’ (for example David Feldman in the latest issue of LQR). A third issue, and our focus here, is how a constitutional statute can be repealed.

In the well-known 2002 case of Thoburn v Sutherland City Council, Laws LJ (with whom Crane J agreed) claimed that a constitutional statute is susceptible to implied repeal in a much narrower range of circumstances than an ordinary statute. At first Laws LJ put the point categorically: ‘Ordinary statutes may be impliedly repealed. Constitutional statutes may not’. Some commentators took this statement to reflect Laws LJ’s considered view. But he immediately explained that, under some conditions, even constitutional statutes can be repealed by implication. The test is whether there are ‘express words’ or ‘words so specific that the inference of an actual determination to effect [the repeal of a constitutional statute] … was irresistible’.

Initially there was intense academic interest in Thoburn. Ultimately, though, Thoburn was a decision of the Administrative Court, and leave to appeal had been denied. Also, Laws LJ’s remarks on constitutional statutes were obiter. When no higher court gave its approval, Thoburn began to seem like an outlier.

That brings us to H, the first clear judicial statement about the implied repeal of a constitutional statute since Thoburn. The proceedings in H were complicated, so what follows is a simplification.

The United States made a request under the Extradition Act 2003 for the extradition of H and BH on charges relating to the manufacture of methamphetamine. H and BH were a husband and wife who at the time were living with their children in Scotland. They argued that their extradition would violate their Article 8 right to respect for family life. The Scottish Ministers issued an extradition order anyway. H and BH appealed to the High Court of Justiciary, and their appeal was dismissed. They then sought to appeal to the Supreme Court.

According to the Extradition Act, a decision of the Scottish Ministers made under that Act could only be appealed against under that Act. And the Extradition Act did not provide a right of appeal to the Supreme Court from the High Court of Justiciary. However, the Scotland Act 1998 provided a right of appeal to the Supreme Court from the High Court of Justiciary on a ‘devolution issue’. Section 57(2) of the Scotland Act prohibits the Scottish Ministers from acting inconsistently with any of the convention rights, and whether the Ministers have violated s 57(2) is a devolution issue. There was therefore the possibility of a conflict between the Extradition Act and the Scotland Act.

Under the doctrine of implied repeal, in the event of a conflict, the Extradition Act, as the later statute, would take priority over the Scotland Act. The Supreme Court would then lack the jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Although none of the parties in H actually contended that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction, the Court considered the issue anyway due to its ‘general public importance’.

Lord Hope, with whom the other judges agreed on the issue of competency, concluded that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The reason was that, properly interpreted, the two statutes were consistent. They provided ‘parallel’ remedies. Such is the ratio of H on this issue.

What interests us is Lord Hope’s obiter dictum. The crucial passage comes when Lord Hope comments on what would have happened had the Extradition Act and the Scotland Act conflicted. He says (at [30], emphasis added):

It would perhaps have been open to Parliament to override the provisions of s 57(2) so as to confer on … [the Scottish Ministers] more ample powers than that section would permit in the exercise of their functions under the 2003 Act. But in my opinion only an express provision to that effect could be held to lead to such a result. This is because of the fundamental constitutional nature of the settlement that was achieved by the Scotland Act. This in itself must be held to render it incapable of being altered otherwise than by an express enactment. Its provisions cannot be regarded as vulnerable to alteration by implication from some other enactment in which an intention to alter the Scotland Act is not set forth expressly on the face of the statute.

It is difficult to think how Lord Hope could have been clearer: the Scotland Act can only be expressly repealed; it cannot be impliedly repealed; that is because of its ‘fundamental constitutional nature’. Lord Hope never qualifies these claims. He never suggests that there are conditions under which the Scotland Act can be impliedly repealed.

Ultimately the Court in H went on to dismiss the appeals, and to uphold the extradition order against H and BH.

We believe that Lord Hope’s dictum matters for two main reasons. First, whereas Thoburn was a decision of the Administrative Court, H is a Supreme Court decision. On the issue of competency, it was unanimous. After Thoburn, constitutional scholars waited for a higher court to give its views. Now the Supreme Court has.

Second, whereas Thoburn said that a constitutional statute can be impliedly repealed by a particularly clear implication, H says that the Scotland Act cannot be impliedly repealed – no exceptions. In this respect, H is more radical than Thoburn.

These considerations alone suggest that H deserves greater attention than it has received thus far (Stephen Dimelow mentions H in a recent LQR article, ‘The Interpretation of Constitutional Statutes’, but in passing).

H may be significant for a third reason, too. Lord Hope says that the Scotland Act cannot be impliedly repealed due to its ‘fundamental constitutional nature’. Other statutes are also fundamental and constitutional in nature (e.g., the Human Rights Act, other devolution legislation). By Lord Hope’s reasoning, these other statutes should also be incapable of implied repeal.

Overall, H suggests that courts in the future will take a new approach to the Scotland Act. They will not treat that Act as exempt from express repeal – as ‘entrenched’ in the full sense of the term – but they will treat it as exempt from implied repeal – as ‘quasi-entrenched’. They are likely to treat other constitutional statutes as quasi-entrenched, too.

The quasi-entrenchment of the Scotland act raises a number of interesting questions. What is the legal or constitutional basis of its quasi-entrenchment? Is the idea that there cannot be a later statute which implies that the Scotland Act is repealed? Or is it that Parliament does not have the power to bring about the repeal of that Act by implication? Or something else? Unfortunately Lord Hope does not say. We consider the possibilities in a separate working paper.

Adam Perry is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Aberdeen.

Farrah Ahmed is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Melbourne. 

Suggested citation: A. Perry and F. Ahmed, ‘Are Constitutional Statutes ‘Quasi-Entrenched’?’ UK Const. L. Blog (25th November 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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Richard Cornes: 11-1 gender ratio Court’s Achilles Heel: Reporting of the Supreme Court’s start of the year press briefing

SCA relationship of cooperation but also competing interests

On October 2 at 10am, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held an hour long pre-term press-briefing to mark the opening of the Court’s fifth year. This blog looks not only at what was said by the Court, and asked by the journalists on the day, but also what was then reported.

The Supreme Court’s relationship with the media is marked by the same combination of common interests and tensions which mark the media’s relationship with any other public body. Yes the Court wants media coverage; and a function of the media is to cover the Court. The media though will always want more than its subjects are looking to give up, and not only that, will often frame how the subject is presented according to each outlet’s particular agendas. Further, the Court, and its justices, will also have their own goals about what messages should be highlighted.

The new transparency – Court opens year with press briefing

That a press briefing featured in the start of year events says something about this still new court. Unlike what went before – the Appellate Committee – the @uksupremecourt has a now seasoned press office (for previous analysis see here and here). While the Court will not rival Strictly for coverage (and likely would not want to – justice, while prepared to show a little leg, still likes to maintain some mystique), its communications operation, which continues to innovate, has made it a world leader amongst top courts for transparency and accessibility.

The President and Deputy President speak

First, what did the Court say in opening? The President and Deputy President both spoke for a total of about fifteen minutes. Lord Neuberger opened by seeking to set the boundaries of what he and Lady Hale would be prepared to say:

As judges we are constrained in some respects as to what we can discuss. For instance, it is inappropriate for judges to give opinions publically on political matters save in so far as they impinge on the rule of law. We have to be wary of expressing views on issues which we may have to decide in due course in court.

His remaining remarks reviewed the number of cases decided since October 2012 (82), and highlighted a selection before closing with a paean to the importance of open justice, including discussing elements of the Court’s communications innovations.

Lady Hale, still, remarkably, the only woman on the Court noted some of the forthcoming terms “highlights”. There’s a curiosity here, almost all cases require leave, and must therefore be “Supreme Court worthy”, and yet this trailing of cases the Court considers likely to be of greater public interest gives us a new gloss on the leave process: the “super-Supreme Court case”. Lady Hale closed with a reflection she must be tiring of making about the lack of women on the Court, and the need for greater diversity in the judiciary generally. It was a reflection though which, as we shall see, made for good press.

Questions from the press

Then came the press questions – each topic necessarily revealing of the questioners’ interests, and in places, their outlet’s agendas. The Court (its Chief Executive, Jenny Rowe, in the chair for this purpose) gave the prized first question to Joshua Rozenberg who asked for a reaction to Conservative policy on repeal of the Human Rights Act, with a techy follow up on what the Court would do if the Act were repealed: develop a common law equivalent of the s.3 obligation (my gloss on Rozenberg’s question)? Faced so directly with such a potentially politically charged question both the President and Deputy declined to speculate. However, coming back to the point later in the hour Dominic Casciani from the BBC did get a little further, eliciting this from Lord Neuberger:

I am now doing what I said I would not do – picking up on Joshua’s point… if we did not have the Human Rights Act, the common law might develop in certain directions to accommodate a degree of change because the common law does change with the times. How it would change and in what respect is pure speculation.

The subtle message being sent by the President that repealing the Human Rights act might not be the last word on human rights principles appearing in Supreme Court jurisprudence was not one which lent itself to an easy headline (the discussion was really only covered by the UKSC blog); the skill was in putting the idea on the record without providing material for “Supreme Court responds to Tory plan to scrap Human Rights Act” type coverage. And indeed, Rozenberg chose the elements of the briefing touching on open court processes for a subsequent Guardian piece.

Francess Gibb of the Times was called next and followed up Lady Hale’s comments about diversity – an issue she did choose for one of her subsequent reports, the others highlighting the concerns Lord Neuberger raised over legal aid, and the Court’s openness agenda. David Barrett of the Telegraph followed up on diversity asking Lady Hale whether she still did not favour positive discrimination (she does not). Barrett’s story on the topic ran under the headline, “Top female judge questions male ‘dominance’”. The other story Barrett chose for print concerned a series of comments Lord Neuberger made about the importance of open justice.

Jack Doyle from the Mail then followed with a question about the wearing of veils in court rooms, including whether the Supreme Court would allow veiled advocates before it – a question which the President chose, in his own words, to “duck”. The veil question did not headline in Doyle’s coverage (though it did make the Express). Like others, one of Doyle’s subsequent pieces also pursued the theme of judicial diversity, “Women not being made top judges because men ‘dominate’ the selection process, says Britain’s only female Law Lord.” Another “’I welcome increased openness unreservedly’ Supreme Court judge’s praise for Mail’s open justice fight”. While both headlines had a basis in what had been said by the two judges, both were the most tendentious of all the subsequent coverage. The open justice theme in particular being linked to a wider Mail campaign about openness in the justice system per se.

Owen Bowcott from the Guardian brought the discussion back to open justice issues, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision (on a 6-3 vote) to allow for closed sessions in connection with the Bank Mellat case. While subsequently reporting on that discussion, and a latter question about the appropriateness of judges attending an Anglican church service to mark the opening of the legal year (which Bowcott raised as a possible independence problem for a court system grappling with questions of veils in courts), the headline for Bowcott’s coverage was, “Lady Hale, supreme court’s sole female justice, calls for diversity.”

From the BBC, this time Danny Shaw, came a question to Lord Neuberger about his previously expressed concerns about cuts to legal aid. For political sensitivity – touching as it does on sensitive resource questions for the Ministry of Justice – the question was up there with Rozenberg’s gambits on the consequences of repeal of the Human Rights Act. Lord Neuberger’s comments on October 2 included:

Rights, whether human rights or other rights, are valueless if they cannot be enforced in court. Reductions in legal aid therefore inevitably cause one concern. … I think that legal aid cuts therefore do cause any person concerned with the rule of law a worry.

The President did couch his concern in an explicit acknowledgment that difficult economic times have to be taken into account; referring back to his opening comments, he provided more of an insight into his view of the wider role of a lead judge, “one of our functions is not merely to sit in court, but also to support and ensure the rule of law.” It was a potent point, subtly made.

With the clock heading towards 11am, Brian Farmer from the Press Association asked about the wearing of legal wigs in court, linking discussion about rules for dress in court back to earlier questions about veils in court. Jane Croft from the Financial Times then came in with a question about divorce cases which allowed Lady Hale, while commenting that the principles in the area were now mostly settled (and thus not likely to give rise to Supreme Court level questions) to note, “obviously, we are not law reformers.” The line, “we are a court, and not a law reform body”, it will be recalled was one strand of Lady Hale’s dissent in the Radmacher v Granatino decision. Croft’s story the next day though was the “First woman law lord Brenda Hale calls for more female judges.”

So far I have only mentioned press coverage. The only other media coverage I found was on Radio 4’s 6pm news which picked up Lady Hale’s comments about the lack of female appointments to the Court. Standing back then, what comes through? First, the event resulted in no media “gotchas.” In particular neither what was said about the Human Rights Act nor legal aid were written up in any sense as “judges criticise government (or Conservative party) policy”. Partly I suspect that is because the judges did not give their audience any suitably juicy sound-bite. Second, there were clearly other issues running of potentially greater controversy on which the press wanted comment on the day: specifically, veils in court, and general concerns about the openness of judicial processes.

Stand-out message? 11-1: the Court’s Achilles heel

The stand-out message emerging from the exercise though is that despite 13 appointments at the Law Lord level since Brenda Hale was appointed 10 years ago, Lady Hale remains the lone female voice on the UK’s top court. Lady Hale can take only some of the credit for this point dominating the next day coverage (including comments which made it online in video form). What actually gets covered from an event like this is the press’s call. And it is striking that of coverage of the briefing (I counted around 15 or so stories), about 75% headlined the diversity point. The Court’s 11-1 gender ratio is clearly of interest to a goodish cross section of the mainstream press. And if that is the message getting through to readers from the Guardian to the Telegraph (and all points in between and beyond), the Court should be worried.

Dr Richard Cornes (@CornesLawNZUK) is a Senior Lecturer at the @EssexLawSchool, and Associate Member of Landmark Chambers, London.

 Suggested citation: R. Cornes, ’11-1 gender ratio Court’s Achilles Heel:  Reporting of the Supreme Court’s start of the year press briefing’  UK Const. L. Blog (16th October 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

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