Tag Archives: Constitutional Principles

Colin Harvey: Reconstructing the ‘Political Constitution’ of Northern Ireland

For reasons that are not difficult to grasp, the constitutional process in Northern Ireland has been marked by fragility and instability. The entity ‘Northern Ireland’ – carved out in the early 1920s – rested on insecure foundations and struggled to establish legitimacy. It was a constitutional creation mapped onto stark ‘facts on the ground’, embedded within a divided society, and designed with precision along ethno-national lines, with demographic and democratic objectives firmly in view (it was engineered to create a permanent pro-union majority). ‘Northern Ireland’ was born from, and emerged into, political violence and the question would remain alive of how it was ever going to secure legitimacy for itself across its diverse population, given the complex and contested constitutional histories of these islands. Northern Ireland’s creation rested both on recognition of the express wishes of a pro- union community in the north of Ireland and an understanding of their willingness to use force to resist membership of a re-unified Ireland. The pro-union majority that had won ‘Northern Ireland’ had to then share a jurisdiction with a substantial ‘minority’ community that felt alienated from the new entity from its inception. Formal legality did not map onto legitimacy. As with other constitutional contexts, it was a societal mix that the traditional Westminster model was hopelessly ill-equipped to address (a fact which Westminster itself had originally given some recognition to).

The violent conflict which re-emerged in the 1960s led to decades of thought around constitutional processes and practices that might achieve political stability in the context of sharp ethno-national division. What constitutional forms might assist, and what political and legal values should underpin them? In these processes the question of how ‘the people’ or ‘the peoples’ of Ireland (North and South) would be defined and engaged gained prominence. It is not coincidental, for example, that endorsement for the present arrangements included concurrent votes in the island of Ireland on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998, a fact – along with many others – which appeared to set in motion a ‘dualist’ constitutional process, or at least a constitutional discourse that looks and sounds essentially, in Bruce Ackerman’s term, ‘dualist’ in nature.

The acceptance that no purely internal solution was credible (or likely to work) meant constitutional thinking had to transcend traditional approaches to Westminster-style constitutionalism, and be informed by perspectives that travelled ‘beyond the state’. In designing such an approach an intriguing question would always be: what would happen to the innovations once they had to be carried into legal and political life?

The aim here is to make an argument about developments in Northern Ireland, which has wider implications for discussions of constitutionalism in these islands. The argument, that I have made before, is straightforward: that Northern Ireland is best viewed as governed by a form of political constitutionalism that has given rise to a series of extra-conventional constitutional fundamentals. These are ‘extra-conventional’ in the sense that they spring from definite political and constitutional interventions and have a basis beyond traditional UK constitutionalism. This has given rise to a form of (to borrow Bruce Ackerman’s language, if not his approach) ‘constitutional dualism’; and they stand as constitutive principles of the ongoing political/peace process.  These are underpinned, and often driven forward, as much by external factors and actors as by any intra-Northern Irish processes. Although they possess explanatory and normative force (they assist us in explaining constitutional politics as well as telling us what we should do), they also can stand in tension with practice, and do not always necessarily cohere.

The argument is advanced in two parts. First, what is meant by ‘political constitutionalism’ is outlined in this specific context. The focus is on the ‘political constitution’ in its extra-conventional sense – the interest is not principally in legal standards or institutions, but in the essentially political principles that appear to be embedded in, and animate, the process of constitutional practice in Northern Ireland. Many of these have gained some form of legal recognition, but the question addressed here focuses on what precedes or constitutes this formal practice, as well as the societal practice of constitutionalism in action. Is this a practical example of a ‘constitutive moment’, anchored within the ‘political’, which confronts a model of constitutionalism in the UK that struggles to recognise or accommodate this political fact?   The intention is to move beyond discussions of legal and/or political accountability to explore the extra-conventional principles which operate as a direct challenge to practice, as well as those which appear to have become embedded and guide it.

Second, what lessons, if any, might be learned from this exercise in protracted constitutional practice in and about Northern Ireland in terms of ‘sharing society’? If the argument is that something of constitutional significance (in an extra-conventional sense) has been ‘constituted’, what is its nature and how does it relate to or challenge conventional practices (if at all).  Does this result in a form of chronic constitutional conservatism, or even constitutional originalism (with the Agreement or Agreements becoming narrowly understood ‘sacred texts’)? What happens when some of these fundamentals remain ‘under-enforced’ (and what could that possibly mean in this context), or have not been implemented, or are in tension with each other? If Northern Ireland is also the site of constitutional experimentation, and the intersection of constitutional relations within these islands, are there lessons from this experience – could some of the emergent principles provide guidance for new forms of political constitutionalism on these islands?

The Values and Limitations of Political Constitutionalism?

Political constitutionalism is often contrasted starkly with legal constitutionalism to denote a connection to – and preference for – political accountability and its associated democratic mechanisms. In this sense, it reflects a profound scepticism about grand constitutional gestures (the idea of ‘the moment’), the judicial role in relation to governing institutions (and generally), and matters such as constitutional review, and strong forms of judicial review. Advocates of political constitutionalism invest their faith primarily in democratic institutions and in improving their practical operation, and, in recent work one such advocate, Adam Tomkins, has defend an explicitly republican reading of the British constitution. Political constitutionalism seeks the restoration of the dignity of politics through a return to values of democratic participation, deliberation and engagement as the best way to secure the normative potential of democratic life. There is a concern about the consequences of the erosion of democratic participation that can flow from the weight placed on the more ‘mysterious’ (if not just as politicised) branches of government. The mistake here is to think that those who advocate political constitutionalism are any less committed to societal, political, economic and cultural transformation. The values of human rights, equality and social justice are advanced and upheld but the principled way forward is not to invest excessive or exclusive belief in the judiciary as their guardians. The argument is precisely that this form of constitutionalism is potentially more transformative. Political constitutionalists should be expressly for forms of political and legal mobilisation around democratic participation, rights, equality and social justice that create conversational space.

The term is used in both explanatory and normative ways, to describe what currently happens and argue for the way things should work. Recent attempts, such as that of Graham Gee and Grégoire Webber in The Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, to address the complexities of political constitutionalism have sought to unearth its normative commitments, as well as its explanatory potential, and to understand in what sense the term ‘political constitution’ is deployed. It now seems evident that political constitutionalism must be more explicit about its normative basis, commitments and practical implications for all institutions – and that work continues to flesh out precisely what it means for a range of institutional and societal actors.  For example, it may be that the ‘political’ in constitutionalism needs to be fleshed out to embrace more broadly based forms of mobilisation that go beyond formal democratic institutions. Political constitutionalism, if it is gain life at all, must be able ‘to see’ work on legal and political mobilisation that is injecting meaning into its core values in practical ways.

What is the sense of political constitutionalism informing the perspective here? In Gee and Webber’s argument, an understanding of political constitutionalism is explored that moves between the normative and the descriptive. Political constitutionalism is used to refer to the essentially political underpinning of key constitutional moments – thus referring to the element of constituent political power and its historical context that may get lost or absorbed – and the values that they endorse and reflect.  The argument is in support of forms of political constitutionalism that keep alive the normative potential of historical moments, their disruptive potential, and their challenge to the capacity of politics and law to retreat into forms of constitutional conservatism that simply absorb any transformative potentialities.

These include commitments to human rights, equality and even instruments such as bills of rights, and can be viewed as part of the ‘normative turn’ in thinking about political constitutionalism.  Unlike descriptive and normative accounts of, for example, the political constitution which are deeply sceptical about rights-talk, the argument is in support of forms of political constitutionalism that can fully accommodate rights and equality as well as their promotion and protection (by a range of institutional actors), while at the same time respecting the centrality and ultimate primacy of political forms of accountability. One of the precise reasons for keeping the politics of constitutive moments alive – particularly as this applies in transitional societies emerging from conflict – is to ensure that the normative force of these principles is realised. A political constitutionalism that could not capture the force and power of global and local movements for rights and equality – and the often innovative and creative ways in which they engage and argue – would surely be an odd one? Without abandoning a critical perspective – and a critique of some of the practical arguments advanced – the modern human rights movement is frequently giving meaning to political constitutionalism, normatively understood. Mobilisation around rights and equality should be more fully included within the sphere of political forms of constitutionalism.

But is this not simply a convenient merger of legal and political constitutionalism? Does this depart so radically from existing understandings that it merits any interest at all? The overriding commitment in the understanding advanced here is a belief in democratic and political processes as the primary generators of positive constitutional value, which can then be carried into peace/political/transitional processes. This is how constitutional basics are forged and continue to remain in play and enable other institutions (such as the courts) to make progress.  During peace processes, for example, we often see the precise dignity of the political sphere at work – as political actors strive together to find negotiated ways forward which sketch the parameters of future imagined societies. Institutions then become, in the words of Adam Tomkins, ‘instruments of the political constitution’ and ways in which the contested norms are taken forward.  There is recognition here, particularly significant in the context of Northern Ireland, that conflict is unavoidable and does not simply dissolve in the face of the ‘constitutional moment’; conflict is something that needs to be managed, and even transformed over time through engagement, disagreement and dialogue.  However ‘thin’ they are, some constitutional fundamentals need to be present if the work of transition is to progress. The principles flowing from these constitutional moments owe their origins to political processes and are anchored in the ‘political’ (and the subsequent constraints are ultimately political in nature), but that does not mean that they are empty of normative content.  Participants in the legal and political worlds must accord appropriate weight to these principles – which can be reflected in legal instruments (and thus can also be ‘upheld’ in formal constitutional arenas). The application of these principles may alter over time, but they retain a core that should be understood and respected.

Whatever formal footholds they have gained, or not, sustained disrespect for the ‘constitutional fundamentals’ which emerge from these constitutional moments can cause significant negative disturbance for the worlds of politics and law.  If the argument here were merely that constitutional change has its basis in politics then it would conform to standard accounts. The question raised is whether the Northern Ireland experience – as a constitutional site of contestation and collision within and between these islands – is a laboratory for new forms of extra-conventional constitutionalism which might even point the way towards future constitutional configurations in these islands?

Constitutionalism in Northern Ireland: Moments and Fundamentals

A constitutional process in conflict

One of the objectives is to locate the analysis of Northern Ireland in ‘constitutional’ terms. This is not to deny the explanatory power of a transitional justice lens, and therefore one that views events within the terms of a violent conflict and what has followed.  It is to suggest that constitutional discourses themselves often arise and become embedded in the midst of and following conflict – and we should not neglect the sharpness of the contestation and conflict that precedes, and is implanted within, traditional forms of constitutionalism. What are the risks of detaching ‘constitutionalism’ and ‘transitional justice’ in such ways, and might this simply encourage processes of forgetting the sheer force of the origins of constitutional moments and their historical context? Should constitutionalism have more confidence in its own intellectual resources?

The stress on the constitutional (and competing ‘constitutionalisms’) is also to place weight on the idea of the ‘constitution of Northern Ireland’ as reflecting values which might guide a post-conflict society. These values are not easily accommodated within the British constitutional tradition (which has been undergoing its own transition). The conflict in and about Northern Ireland is primarily ethno-national in nature, and tied in particular to contested notions of self-determination connected to two national identities and traditions: Britishness and Irishness. A limited constitutional appeal to one national tradition within a framework of UK constitutional law is not going to ‘work’ in a context such as this, where mechanisms have been put in place to acknowledge the equal legitimacy of competing national aspirations. Designing a relatively complex constitutional architecture, which owes its origins to the intense politics of a localised peace process, was the result.

A constitutional moment?

Was there a constitutional moment? The suggestion is that 1998 represented a constitutional moment in the history of Northern Ireland and Ireland, and in constitutional relations between these islands. In terms of the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland – I would tie this to two dates, 10th April 1998 (adoption of ‘The Agreement’ and 22nd May 1998 (all-island vote). For the purposes of this argument these dates have ‘extra-conventional’ significance – both politically and legally – in other words, a normative significance beyond that accorded to them in standard accounts of constitutional law in the UK. The argument is that the process led to the endorsement on the island of Ireland (and with the bilateral agreement also adopted, inter-governmental endorsement from the UK and Ireland) of defined constitutional fundamentals/principles which stand in, and over, this peace/political process. This can be pushed further to suggest that in the event of Irish reunification (achieved through this constitutionalised process) these principles would and should remain. In other words: that these are fundamentals that should function in the event of a democratic decision in favour of Irish reunification and subsequent constitutional debate about the future of Northern Irish representation in an Irish democratic context.

What are the constitutional fundamentals?

If there are constitutional fundamentals – born out of political contestation and alive now within it – what are they? A plausible case can be made for the following – in no particular order:

  • First, democratic consent (North and South) to any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
  • Second, internal power-sharing (liberal consociational) government in NI.
  • Third, recognition of the equal legitimacy of divergent national aspirations – with all that this implies re British-Irish intergovernmental engagement.
  • Fourth, a commitment to democratic and peaceful means only as the method of advancing these equally legitimate political aspirations (a commitment to politics and persuasion ‘the force of argument only’).
  • Fifth, good relations, mutual respect and structured co-operation on the island of Ireland (North – South) and between these islands (East-West, British-Irish).
  • Sixth, through the concept of ‘equivalence’, the centrality of human rights, equality and democratic participation to current and future constitutional arrangements (regardless of constitutional status)– the principled normative basis for sharing society – not just sharing political power.

Living with Fundamentals: Sharing Power and Sharing Society?

It is evident from the core language of the agreements reached that politics, democracy, consent and participation are all given a meaning that can only accord an express dignity to ‘politics’. In its sharpest sense this means rejecting political violence as the way of resolving disputes, as well as recognising the stumbling nature of an emergent political process. And it is here that a familiar tale emerges of the tensions between stabilisation of faltering politics and the normative aspirations generated by the ambitions of a peace process.

It is worth taking just two of the above fundamentals as illustrative of current debates. I suggest here that while there has been extensive focus on sharing political power (and the intricate ways this is structured and negotiated at a practical level), and stabilising power-sharing government, less attention is paid to the question of sharing society on the sort of principled basis envisaged in the various agreements. What this means is the normative basis on which the peace process was constructed (conceptions of a ‘better society’) can lose out to narrow understandings of stability and thin theories of economic advance as ultimate ends. It is in precisely this area that the significance of resurrecting constitutive politics (the normative basis of the new political constitution) becomes pressing and can take on profound practical value.

First, the idea of power-sharing government. The Agreement and Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended) reflect particular arrangements to give life to power-sharing government (and the ideas underpinning this were around for decades). This results in an Executive where all the major political parties are ‘in government’ together (a grand coalition) allocated on a proportionate basis – as with committee chairs and structures as well: the D’Hondt mechanism. The system of designation – ‘nationalist, unionist and other’ within the Assembly allows for the operation of cross-community voting rules for key decisions.

Debate has raged since 1998 about this model. It tends towards slow and ponderous government, gestural communal politics, a lack of legislative initiative, often does not pay due regard to principles of collective responsibility, and can create coalitions even more remarkable than the one operating in London now. This said, it remains hard to see how any other system could have functioned – or would have been acceptable to participants. The system was designed precisely to accommodate the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and in many senses it has ‘worked’. It has now achieved a measure of sustained stability (the last Northern Ireland Assembly, unlike all of its predecessors, served its full term 2007-2011). The question for future reference, however, is when the time may be felt appropriate to discuss possible amendment, starting with the current designation system. Would that undercut a constitutional fundamental? The implication of the argument here is that it is possible to respect the constitutional fundamentals of power-sharing (the principle) through a variety of mechanisms of application. The discussion could safely be commenced without compromising Agreement-based constitutional fundamentals.

Second, the idea of sharing society; with express reference to human rights and equality. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is filled with the language of rights and equality. Over the course of decades it became an accepted ‘basic’ of the process that any resolution would have to contain such express commitments. The Agreement makes clear that whatever government has jurisdiction in Northern Ireland there must be no disadvantage in terms of rights. The document therefore endorsed the idea that constitutional status (UK or Ireland) should not determine the level of rights protection enjoyed. The Agreement provided for a new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and is infused with the language of rights and equality. As with the emergence of a new rights regime in Britain, ‘Convention rights’ are mainstreamed in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – and have the status with regard to the Assembly that the whole traditional conception of a subordinate legislation implies.

The Agreement suggested more than mere ‘giving further effect’ to Convention rights. It contained reference to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that would supplement the Convention, draw on international instruments and experience, and reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. This was where the essentially new normative underpinning would come (the Convention rights were in a sense coming along regardless via the Labour government’s constitutional reform process and the Human Rights Act 1998). The advisory role was allocated to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the Bill of Rights process was formally launched on 1 March 2000. It included an extensive participative process of consultation and revealed areas of agreement and disagreement (as would be expected of any such constitutional process). It included the work of the Human Rights Commission, a specially established Bill of Rights Forum comprising membership of political parties and civil society (with an independent international chair), and civil society participation that included the formation of an ‘umbrella’ organisation called the Human Rights Consortium. The final advice of the Commission was submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 10th December 2008 (chosen symbolically to align with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948). The Commission, following on from the consultation process, decided to include a broad range of rights (civil, political, economic, social and environmental). While the Commission opted for traditional judicial enforcement routes, it is quite explicit about the centrality of democratic institutions, including reference to a reporting mechanism to the Northern Ireland Assembly from the Executive on socio-economic rights, and the creation of an Assembly Committee modelled on the Joint Committee at Westminster. Following a period of consultation, the process is now effectively stalled. The Secretary of State has pointed to the absence of full cross-party consensus (and his unwillingness to act in its absence), and well as indicating disagreement with specific aspects of the Commission’s final advice.

The later stages of the Northern Ireland process also coincided with the emergence of a debate about a British Bill of Rights, which was to lead to the creation of a new Bill of Rights Commission that is due to report before the end of the year. One of the questions arising is how precisely the Northern Ireland process will be taken forward in a way that reflects its particular process of constitutionalisation, and it will be intriguing to see what answers – if any – are provided. Simply noting Northern Ireland, or even Scotland, as an uncomplicated ‘add-on’ to a set of UK-wide recommendations will seem odd in the constitutional context sketched here.

Is it possible to realise the constitutional fundamentals with reference to rights and equality without a Bill of Rights? Is this another ‘fundamental’ in need of further work? While there may be different ways to realise these other than with this instrument, there was a reasonable expectation that a Bill of Rights would be enacted. There is a risk that the failure to achieve a Bill of Rights further undermines ‘sharing society’ in Northern Ireland on a principled basis. The Bill of Rights is only one example of where the priority accorded to stabilisation has led to ‘under-enforcement’ of constitutional fundamentals around the development of an equal and shared society. This observation flows from analysis of contributions from societal participants within the current constitutional conversation, and gains its normative foothold less through formal recognition than through the advocacy of constitutional politics and practical mobilisation.

Conclusion

With all the flaws, failings and ongoing challenges taken fully into account, it remains credible to assert that the recent experience of Northern Ireland lends weight to the ‘dignity of constitutional politics’ and shows why a belief and faith in the hard, grinding and comparatively unrewarding work of constitutional politics should not lightly be surrendered. The constitutional moments are often precisely that – they do not arrive without the effort of constitutional practice at localised levels, and their normative aspirations are not easily realised without a continuation of societal engagement. Political constitutionalism will only ever gain real life through practical mobilisation beyond the institutions of government and governance.

The tentative suggestion here is that a ‘political constitution of Northern Ireland’ was born from the peace/political process. It is a constitutional experiment – because of all the intersections that occur here – that has deeper significance for the democratic configurations of these islands. It is one that owes its origins to, and is constituted by, a defined historic period and political context. This constitutional moment was reflective of the essential ‘dignity of constitutional politics’, and it generated constitutional fundamentals that are ‘extra-conventional’, in the sense that they may not gain precise recognition in practice or by participants in legal forms as currently understood. They retain normative value nonetheless. The ‘dualism’ that emerges rests on constitutional fundamentals/principles that can be realised in a range of ways. These principles carry explanatory and normative potential in seeking to grasp the tensions within constitutional politics, and the standards driving debate and momentum. The continuing conversation about constitutional law and politics in Northern Ireland is filled with competing understandings of what they might mean, and how they might be realised. The empirical evidence suggests that so long as the fundamentals are respected, then the political/peace process in Northern Ireland is stabilised and advances. ‘Disrespect’ results in negative disturbance and disruption and can generate breakdown (‘under-enforcement’ is potentially one of the most serious forms of such disrespect). This does not imply rigidity (although inertia can be one of the consequences of the consociational model, even in a liberal form) – there is much flexibility within this context. But it is to suggest that systematic disrespect for the newly emergent ‘political constitution’ of Northern Ireland (whether emanating from London or Dublin) will lead to practical political and legal problems for all participants.

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast.

This paper was presented at the ‘Political Constitutions’ workshop, held in GCU London, 7-8th June 2012.

Suggested citation: C. Harvey, ‘Reconstructing the ‘Political Constitution’ of Northern Ireland’ UK Const. L. Blog (2 August 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

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Stuart Lakin: What Role Should Judges Play in the Constitution Justice Sumption?

In his recent F.A. Mann lecture Jonathan Sumption Q.C., the newly appointed member of the Supreme Court, took up the question of the proper role of judges vis-a-vis the political branches of government in the UK.   Tom Adams has already provided a fine summary and analysis of the lecture in his January post.   I urge readers to follow the link to this post (and to read the lecture itself ) before continuing.

In this short comment, I want to offer some thoughts on Sumption’s central theme, namely that judges should not intervene in matters of politics or policy.     I shall make two general points, one positive and one negative.   In the positive, I shall support Sumption’s call for judges to engage directly with constitutional theory in determining which branches of government should decide which types of questions (for a more general argument about the importance of theory for public law, see my earlier post.)  In the negative, I shall support Tom Adams’s conclusion that Sumption’s own constitutional theory is rather unbalanced.   While Sumption makes many cogent arguments about the distinctive virtues of politics and governmental policy-making, he needs to say far more about the precise role of judges in the constitution.    This task, in turn, requires a far more detailed and nuanced account of the nature and importance of law, the rule of law and individual rights.

Before I move into my arguments, it is worth sounding a few notes of caution.  A public lecture of about 9,000 words (or an hour) in length, given just a few months before taking up judicial office (for the first time) in the highest court in the land, with lawyers, journalists and others hanging on your every word, is probably not the ideal occasion to mark someone’s score sheet.    Sumption is an unusually bright lawyer.   I doubt that his arguments are the best he has, or even that he fully endorses everything he says.    It certainly seems premature, to me, to conclude from his lecture that he is ‘conservative’ and ‘naive’ in his views (see Joshua Rozenberg’s article in The Guardian, November 9, 2011.).  But I may be wrong.  We shall have to wait and see whether, or to what extent, the arguments of Sumption Q.C. find their way into the judgments of Justice Sumption…

The need for judges to do constitutional theory

My positive argument can be made very briefly.  It is less of an argument, and more of a textual ‘hear, hear’ for the following passage towards the end of Sumption’s lecture:

“English judges have traditionally been shy about resorting to large constitutional theories to explain their judgments. This is consistent with the pragmatic and undemonstrative traditions of English law, and its distaste for rhetoric and all-embracing propositions. However, the reticence of English judges about the constitutional implications of their decisions has had unfortunate consequences. It has meant that English public law has not developed a coherent or principled basis for distinguishing between those questions which are properly a matter for decision by politicians answerable to Parliament and the electorate, and those which are properly for decision by the courts”  (22)

Whether or not this is a fair assessment of the record of English judges, the broad implications of the passage must be correct.   The proper division of responsibilities between courts, the executive and the legislature is a deeply controversial, moral question.   It can only be answered by reference to some theory of why certain types of decisions should be left to one or other branch of government.    The greater the willingness of judges to make explicit their constitutional theory, the greater the prospects for a coherent and principled model of the separation of powers.

Sumption supports this general view with a careful account of the relevance of judicial deference/restraint/reticence (call it what you will) to public law adjudication.

First, judicial deference, where appropriate, is not deference to the minister; it is deference to “the constitutional separation of powers which has made the minister the decision-maker, and not him.”  (18)     To put this point differently, judges should not defer at all; they should simply exercise their proper constitutional function on some principled account of what that function should be.   This is a point made repeatedly by Trevor Allan in his work on deference.

Secondly, Sumption plays down the significance of ‘institutional’ reasons for judicial deference.   Factors such as “the lack of justiciable standards by which to assess [particular areas of policy-making], the limitations of the court’s expertise, and the indirect impact which an adverse decision may have on interests not represented before the court”, Sumption argues, “reduce to the level of a practical impediment what is actually an important issue of principle.” (20)   The proper basis for judicial power, Sumption reiterates, must be the general application of an underlying constitutional principle across the whole range of government activity.

This distinction between ‘institutional/practical’ reasons and principled reasons for judicial restraint recalls Jeffrey Jowell’s distinction between the ‘institutional’ and ‘constitutional’ competence of courts.  Jowell and Sumption may not be in full agreement though.   For Jowell, institutional reasons for deference are themselves moral reasons (as opposed to practical, unprincipled reasons).    Jowell must be right on this point.    The question of what counts as a ‘justiciable standard’ must depend on some principled account of what types of standards judges should apply.    Similarly, the extent to which courts require special ‘expertise’ must depend on some principled account of what type of judgement courts should make about the evidence before them (I shall  have more to say about these points below).

Perhaps Allan, Sumption and Jowell are all ultimately saying roughly the same thing: that  an account of the proper role of judges requires a principled theory of a range of constitutional and institutional factors.    As Allan has helpfully put it, the label ‘deference’ is a conclusion about how we should understand those factors.

So What Should Courts Do?

Having encouraged judges to get stuck into constitutional theory, how far does Sumption himself take us towards a convincing theory of role of judges?    This brings me to my negative argument.   It is striking as one reads Sumption’s lecture how little argument there is about what judges should do.    There are heaps of warnings about what judges should not do, and how judges have strayed outside their proper constitutional role (whatever that might be): judges should not intervene in areas of ‘macro-policy’ (6), judges should not use judicial review as a means of expressing their ‘aversion’ to a policy (6), judges should not legislate (7), judges should not balance competing policies (9), judges should not attempt to resolve inherently political issues (18-19), etc, etc.     At the same time, Sumption gives plenty of rich and insightful argument about the value of politics as a mode of policy-making:   politics is an “essential tool of compromise” (17), the only means of determining the public interest, and the only way of ensuring democratic, public accountability on sensitive issues of public policy (21).

There is no question that a comprehensive theory of the role of judges vis-a-vis the political branches of government must include a detailed account of legislation, politics, policy, and democratic accountability   Those theorists who advocate a so-called ‘political’ or ‘republican’ understanding of the constitution place particular emphasis on these types of things.   As does Jeremy Waldron in his own uniquely challenging way.     But these types of things make up just one side of the constitutional equation.     We also need a positive account of precisely what role judges and courts should have in the constitution.   How should judges interpret statutes?   What limits should judges place on the exercise of executive discretion?   As I have said, Sumption doesn’t take us very far at all with those types of questions.   He assures us that judicial review is not ‘unnecessary’ (18); and he insists that we need to ‘sort out the law which judges [should] administer’ (19);  but, beyond that, he offers only the most indistinct account of judges’ job description.

Take the following familiar situation described by Sumption early on in his lecture (6).  A statute gives a minister an apparently unqualified power to act ‘as he or she thinks fit’.  The court has to decide whether the minister has abused this power.    How should a judge decide this question?    We can infer from Sumption’s account of what judges should not do that they should apply the “clear literal meaning [of] the statute”, or they should try to find “sufficient and admissible evidence of the actual [Parliamentary intention].”  (7)    But the text of statute will very often (if not always) bear many different possible meanings; and it may be altogether unclear from the text (or indeed from Hansard) what meaning Parliament intended.   What should a judge do then?      Sumption seems to have no answer to this question beyond telling us that, at this point, a judge’s decision will cease to be a legal decision: judges will instead inevitably cross over into the forbidden territory of policy-making and legislation.

Sumption’s failure (at least in this lecture) to advance a rigorous theory of the judicial role is symptomatic of an unfortunate tendency among British constitutional lawyers and theorists.  Different views on the role of judges are all too often expressed in metaphors or empty slogans: judges should apply ‘a light touch’ or a ‘hands-off’ approach, or a ‘progressive’ approach to judicial review.    The fix for this tendency, I think, is a much closer engagement with legal theory alongside political theory.     If it is thought that judges should give effect to the law, then judges and theorists need to grapple with the question of what counts as a legal right, duty or power; and they need to think about what it means for officials or institutions to be governed by law (or the rule of law).    These are difficult and controversial questions, but judges and theorists have no option but to confront them.    Judges can only make a principled judgment about when to impugn a ministerial decision if they have put together a theory both of politics, policy and democracy, and of law, the rule of law, and individual rights.   I would add that judges should be as willing to spell out their legal theory as their political theory.    Given his general sympathy to judges doing theory, it would be surprising if Sumption were to disagree with me about this.

Stuart Lakin is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Reading

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Gavin Phillipson: Constitutional Principles and the Human Rights Act: Moving Beyond One-Way Street Approaches

 I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship of the Human Rights Act with the existing principles of the UK constitution – themselves not always easy to pin down or agree upon of course. I realise that I’d unconsciously taken the view, in some of my previous writings, that this relationship operated as a basically one-way street: it was about, and only about, how far the HRA transformed the existing constitution. And as one of the enthusiasts for the HRA, I’d been eager to argue for that effect to be of maximum possible extent.  But increasingly recently I’ve been wondering – and have started to write about – the opposite question: how far the HRA itself must be read in the light of pre-existing constitutional principles. And my thought so far is that this question not only tends open up what we might crudely call a ‘legal v political constitutionalism’ divide in scholarship, but that it poses something of a paradox for that divide too.

Under the traditional UK constitution, the key principles were the political accountability of the Executive branch to Parliament, and of the sovereign Parliament to the people, while the judges were confined to a modest role in policing a narrow, formal conception of the view of law, in the shadow of parliamentary supremacy. So how far has the HRA changed this? A very large question of course, not to be tackled in a single article, let alone a single blog post, but what I want to point out here is how approaches to this question – including how it is posed – cannot help but fall into – or open up – the legal-political constitutionalism divide I’ve mentioned. I think we can sketch two basic contrasting views, which of course bear directly upon not only a range of specific interpretive issues raised by the HRA, but also the assessment of the overall significance of the Act. These interpretive issues, all of which are keenly contested, include in particular, (a) the role of judicial deference in reviewing decisions of the elected branches, (b) the extent to which the courts can re-define the meaning of legislation to conform with the Convention rights, and (c) how far courts have an obligation to develop protection for those rights even in the sphere of private common law (the ’horizontal effect’ debate). But the difference between the two views is not simply the different answers they give to these specific questions, although they do tend to give different ones; from it also follows two sharply opposing analytical perspectives through which the interface between the HRA and traditional constitutional principles is itself approached. (Before going any further I must add the rider that these two contrasting approaches are relatively crudely sketched here and that there are many important nuances I would have acknowledged (at least in footnotes!) are thereby glossed over. In particular, some judges and scholars have taken rather minimal readings of the HRA seemingly for ‘small c conservative’, rather than political constitutionalist reasons) .

Under the first view, associated with the school referred to variously ‘as liberal normativists’ or ‘legal constitutionalists’, the HRA amounts to a hugely significant re-orientation of the UK constitution away from its traditional majoritarian basis. On this view, the HRA, despite its relative weakness as a merely statutory ‘Bill of Rights’, formally subject by its provision to parliamentary supremacy, marks a signal change in the judges’  previous ‘procedural’ role, and a major re-balancing of the three arms of government in favour of the judiciary. In turn, under this view, the interpretation of the HRA itself should be driven by the overriding objectives of ensuring maximal protection for, and further development of, the Convention rights and be strongly informed by the Convention’s implicit requirement that questions concerning rights are primarily for judicial determination, as they are at Strasbourg.

It is well known that, particularly in relation to the three interpretive issues mentioned above, the Act allows for a degree of judicial choice between the use of what may be crudely termed its ‘pro-rights’ provisions (s 6(1), 3(1) in particular) and  its ‘pro-majoritarian’ aspects (s 6(2), 3(2)) and 4) – and thus gives rise to a sliding scale of judicial power. Under the rights-driven interpretative approach, the dial of judicial power is generally turned to the maximum. The result is that the judicial role becomes elevated to such an extent as to give rise to what has been referred to as a ‘bi-polar sovereignty’, with the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights given equal or near-equal status with the supremacy of Parliament to which they were previously so firmly subordinated. Under this view, then, the HRA plays a major road in re-conceptualising – even transforming – the UK constitution.

In sharp contrast, under the second view, associated with the ‘political constitutionalist’ school, the HRA has a much narrower role and a primarily practical one: it is there simply to give British citizens access, in domestic courts, to the rights that previously only Strasbourg could enforce. In turn this means that, when assessing and interpreting the HRA, instead of asking how far the Act should change our view of the constitution, such a view instead assumes that traditional constitutional principles must shape our view of the HRA. Such views tend to stress the continuing operation of what can be termed ‘the constitutional constraint’ on judges, represented by the separation of powers and the primacy of Parliament’s democratic role. Under this view, the courts must grant considerable deference to the elected branches of government, continue to develop the common law only incrementally, and take particular care to ensure that ‘interpretation’ of legislation never tips over into effectively re-writing it.  Conor Gearty has been particularly active in arguing for this viewpoint.

While remaining broadly on the ‘legal’ rather than ‘political’ shores of constitutional scholarship, I have started to perceive more of a need to consider the ‘fit’ of the HRA within the existing constitution, particularly where its provisions are ambiguous. For example, in a forthcoming article with my colleague Alex Williams at Durham, ‘Horizontal Effect and the Constitutional Constraint’ (MLR, 2011), we argue that the horizontal effect puzzled posed by the HRA cannot ultimately be solved simply by consideration of the provisions of the Act itself or even of the Convention rights. Rather, given the paradox set up by section 6(1) and (3)’s inclusion of judges within those public authorities bound to act compatibly with the Convention rights taken together with the Act’s presumably deliberate silence on private law and common law, we must turn to existing constitutional principles governing the role of the judiciary, which (we argue) provide the ‘constitutional constraint’ of incrementalism; this supplies the necessary definition of and limitation upon the judicial role in developing common law compatibly with the Convention rights.

Of course, in the end, either view is incomplete on its own.  To focus only on how the HRA changes the constitution misses the inevitable question of how far the constitution governs how we approach the HRA in the first place. But, equally, to argue that interpretation of the HRA’s provisions must be governed by traditional principles is a very partial view: first it leads one into the kind of doctrinal messes we’ve seen when judges have tried to water the section 6(1) head of judicial review down into a muddled kind of heightened Wednesbury; but second, of course, going too far in reading down the plain terms of the HRA – an Act of Parliament – risks disrespect to Parliament’s sovereignty – the first principle of the traditional constitution.  And this leads us to the possible paradox I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Those who, through interpretation of the HRA, seek to turn down its dial of judicial power are in the end appealing to principles of the UK constitution – the separation of powers, and a particular view of parliamentary democracy – and asserting that Parliament cannot change these things; rather, legislation like the HRA which seemingly seeks to do so finds itself in turn simply re-interpreted by those principles. (An example would be the way that their Lordships in Bellinger read the limits of the interpretative obligation imposed by section 3(1) HRA in the light of the limits to the judicial role prescribed by the constitutional background as they saw it).  The paradox I sense, then, goes something like this: enthusiasts for the Act – ‘true blue Convention lawyers’ as Gearty once dubbed us – essentially rely on parliamentary sovereignty in order to assert that Parliament can, and has, transformed the traditional constitution through enacting the HRA – and yet are often not major fans of that doctrine. Conversely, those ‘political constitutionalists’ who resist such an expansive reading of the Act’s constitutional significance seem to rely in doing so on Parliament’s inability to change certain constitutional fundamentals; and yet it is the political constitutionalists who, broadly speaking, are most supportive of a traditional view of parliamentary sovereignty, under which any and every principle other than the basic sovereignty of parliament itself is open to change by Parliament. I can think of various possible ways of debunking this seeming paradox myself but am eager to see what readers have to say.

It seems obvious that the solution to the polarity of the ‘two views’ on this issue I’ve sketched above is a more sophisticated reading of the relationship I’m considering, whereby the HRA is both interpreted through existing constitutional principle while viewed as simultaneously starting to change those principles over time. It certainly seems to me that one’s overall constitutional leanings are always going to condition how one perceives the relative balance between those two contradictory tendencies. In the absence of a formal mechanism for constitutional change in the UK, analysing and justifying the process and direction of such change is always going to be a murky and contested business.

Gavin Phillipson is Professor of Law at the University of Durham. Some of the above thoughts will be fleshed out in a forthcoming chapter in Leigh and Masterman, The UK’s Statutory Bill of Rights:  Constitutional and Comparative Perspectives (2012, British Academy).

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