Tag Archives: Jackson

Douglas Edlin: Will Britain Have a Marbury?

edlind Marbury v Madison is the most famous judicial decision in US history, written by the most important judge in US history.  According to the traditional understanding, Chief Justice John Marshall brilliantly side-stepped a looming political clash between former President John Adams and newly elected President Thomas Jefferson.  In doing so, Marshall declined the additional power Congress attempted to confer upon the US Supreme Court through section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, while simultaneously claiming for the Court the much more important authority to review the constitutionality of federal legislation and government action.  It is a terrific story.  As is frequently the case, however, there is more to the story.  Marbury did not actually emerge from the legal ether and the political acumen of Marshall as the deus ex machina of US constitutional politics.  For years prior to Marbury, courts had claimed and employed the authority to review legislation for conformity with fundamental principles of law.  Nevertheless, if we consider Marshall’s decision in relation to the US rule of recognition, the conventional understanding is, in some meaningful sense, more important than the historical specifics.  US legal and political officials have long viewed the Marbury ruling as the established legal basis for the power of judicial review, and officials generally comply when the Court determines that their actions have violated the US Constitution.

Now that the United Kingdom has a Supreme Court that is separated formally and physically from Parliament, I wonder if the UK Supreme Court will, sooner or later, issue an opinion – like Marshall’s in Marbury – in which it expressly claims the authority to review primary legislation and ensure its conformity with the British constitution.

Does Britain Need a Marbury?

As with Marshall’s opinion, if the UK Supreme Court writes its Marbury, that decision will not appear from nowhere.  For one thing, of course, prominent British judges such as Lord Justice Laws, Lord Justice Sedley, and Lord Woolf have suggested for some time in extra-curial writings that the doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty may no longer be the only or the best understanding of British constitutional principles.

Moreover, and more to the point where the UK rule of recognition is concerned, a shift in official attitudes and behavior may be occurring, or may already have occurred.  In decisions such as Anisminic, Pierson, Simms, Belmarsh, Jackson and Cart, the courts have indicated that the meaning and force of the British constitution cannot be determined by Parliament alone.

In fact, in the first appeal heard by the newly constituted Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Ahmed v H.M. Treasury , the Court considered the scope of authority delegated to (or claimed by) the Treasury under the United Nations Act of 1946 with respect to combating terrorism by freezing the assets of suspected terrorists.  Purporting to act under the authorization of the 1946 Act, the Treasury froze the assets of a number of citizens and residents of the UK.  According to the Court, the case raised a series of significant issues that “concern the separation of powers.”

A critical issue in Ahmed was the contention that § 1(1) of the 1946 Act,  allowed the Treasury to impede the fundamental rights of individuals while simultaneously preventing those individuals from questioning the legality of the government’s actions in court.  As Lord Mance put it, “At common law, the submission is that s 1(1) cannot be taken to have contemplated or permitted orders which would interfere with, or at all events violate, fundamental rights . . . The real issue is whether s 1(1) permits the making of an order which interferes with such rights on a basis which is immune from any right of challenge on the merits before a court or other judicial tribunal.”  (Ahmed, [2010] UKSC 2, [238], [239]).

According to Lord Mance (and several other members of the UK Supreme Court), the 1946 Act could not be read to permit the Treasury to freeze personal assets and to preclude judicial review of the Treasury’s actions – with the practical effect of interfering with individuals’ fundamental rights of movement, property, and privacy, as well as their right of access to the courts – so that the legality and legitimacy of the Treasury’s actions could functionally be immunized from judicial assessment:

 The basic common law right at issue on these appeals is [the appellants’] right to access to a domestic court or tribunal to challenge the basis for including their names in the list of persons associated with Al-Qaida or the Taliban and so freezing their property with the severe personal consequences already indicated     . . . The words of s 1(1) are general, but for that very reason susceptible to the presumption, in the absence of express language or necessary implication to the contrary, that they were intended to be subject to the basic rights of the individual . . . As an extreme form of restriction of individual liberty, internment without the right to challenge its basis before any court or judicial tribunal would, if it were to be possible at all, at the least require primary legislation. . . . It is a matter which one would expect to be subject to judicial control, before or after the designation.  So here, in my view, s 1(1) was and is an inappropriate basis for the Al-Qaida Order, freezing indefinitely the ordinary rights of individuals to deal with or dispose of property on the basis that they were associated with Al-Qaida or the Taliban, without providing any means by which they could challenge the justification for treating them as so associated before any judicial tribunal or court . . . (Ahmed, [2010] UKSC 2, [246], [249] (Lord Mance) (citation omitted) (emphasis supplied)).

This passage suggests (in the italicized language) that certain acts of the government, in the absence of any possible judicial assessment of their legality, are so fundamentally contrary to the principles of the British constitution that they would not be sustained by the courts and cannot be achieved by the government.

In Ahmed, the UK Supreme Court may already have said that the constitutional status of certain common law principles cannot be altered by statute.  If this is becoming the prevailing judicial perspective, the UK rule of recognition and the UK constitution may require a somewhat more complicated formulation than “whatever the Queen enacts in Parliament is law.”

Does Britain Want a Marbury?

In response to the notion that the UK rule of recognition has already shifted, traditionalists would argue (as Jeffrey Goldsworthy does in his most recent book) that a rule of recognition can change only through the actions and beliefs of all senior officials of the system, not just judges.  And since the judges cannot alter the rule of recognition by themselves, and since we do not yet see a consensus among all legal and political officials in Britain with respect to the courts’ authority to exercise judicial review over parliamentary legislation, sovereignty remains the cornerstone of the British constitution and the core of the UK rule of recognition.

In addition, proponents of sovereignty might point out that none of the cases I have mentioned contains an explicit assertion of a Marbury-style form of judicial review.  Perhaps this authority can be found in the subtext of these opinions, by those who seek it, but subtextual and inferential and indirect references to this judicial authority are not enough.  For the UK rule of recognition to change, the courts must claim this power for themselves, as Marshall did.  Then Britain must see what the reaction of its officials is to that ruling.

For defenders of parliamentary sovereignty as the constitutional orthodoxy of British law and politics, the answer to this question is no.  A thousand times, no.  Whether in terms of history and tradition, or in terms of theory and practice, sovereignty’s defenders believe an (explicit) assertion by the courts of co-equal institutional and constitutional authority will threaten the solid foundations on which centuries of British law have been built.  And in return Britain will be left with the unconstrained judicial activism of the US courts.

The concern that a British Marbury would inevitably supplant traditional parliamentary sovereignty in the UK with US-style “judicial supremacy” is widely shared, and not just by proponents of traditional absolute sovereignty.  In a recent post on this blog (2 April 2013), Dawn Oliver noted that the US Supreme Court has failed to prevent some of the worst political and human rights abuses in US history.  Professor Oliver’s point is beyond dispute.  And so Britons might reasonably conclude that the Supreme Court of the UK should not presume to fix what is not broken.

The problem is that governments do occasionally break things.  That is why decisions such as Ahmed and Belmarsh arise.  Professor Oliver’s well-taken observation about the historical and theoretical and practical differences between a presidential model of government contained within a written constitutional framework and a parliamentary model that has evolved through an unwritten constitutional tradition means that the UK Supreme Court will never transform itself into a reproduction of the US Supreme Court (even when it or its predecessor writes opinions such as Ahmed and Belmarsh).

Should Britain Have a Marbury?

So maybe the UK does not want or need a Marbury.  Should the UK Supreme Court write one, anyway?  Fig leaves and fairy tales may have their place, but a Supreme Court that no longer sits in Parliament’s building, a separate and independent institution in all respects, which is seen that way and which sees itself that way, should be able to say that it has the authority to invalidate governmental acts that violate constitutional principles.  The rule of recognition is defined by what the officials of the system do.  One of the most important things judges do as officials of the system is write opinions.  Professor Oliver is right to point out that the US Supreme Court did not prevent or correct important abuses of power throughout US history.  She is also right to note that it did correct some.  The UK courts have, too.  The time may have come for the UK Supreme Court to say that is what the UK courts are doing, when that is what they are doing.

The concern raised by Professor Oliver, which is shared by defenders of sovereignty such as Professor Goldsworthy, is that “A move to judicial review of legislation in the UK could well undermine the positive pro-constitutionalism, non-partisan aspects of the political and governmental culture.”  But as Professor Oliver reminded us, many of those problems in the US result from distinctive aspects of the political process in the US (i.e., a sometimes ambiguous written constitution that created a federal and presidential system of government, and a more aggressive and less civil political culture), which are not present in the UK.  It seems unlikely that the UK Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to countenance governmental abuses of power would change these other aspects of British government and politics.

Douglas Edlin is an Associate Professor and Chair at the Department of Political Science, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Suggested citation: D. Edlin,  ‘Will Britain Have a Marbury?’  UK Const. L. Blog (7th June 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)


Filed under Judicial review

Derek O’Brien: The Basic Structure Doctrine and the Courts of the Commonwealth Caribbean

derek-obrien-33The basic structure doctrine, as first expounded by the Indian Supreme Court in the early 1970s in Kesavanand Bharati v Kerala (A.I.R. 1973 SC 1461), asserts that the law-making powers of a legislature are not unlimited in as much as they do not extend to altering the ‘basic structure’ of the constitution. Some 40 years later the same doctrine has been invoked in two cases by the Supreme Court of Belize to strike down amendments to the Constitution of Belize. In both cases the legislation amending the Constitution had secured the special majority in the House of Representatives required by the Constitution, but was nevertheless struck down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the legislation violated the basic structure of the Belize Constitution. The cases are of interest not only because they are the first, and so far the only, examples of the basic structure doctrine being invoked by a Commonwealth Caribbean court, but also because they offer a valuable insight into how a dispute between the courts and the executive with regard to the implied limits on a legislature’s law-making powers might play out.

In the first case, Bowen v Attorney General BZ 2009 SC 2, a group of landowners sought to challenge the constitutionality of the Belize Constitution (Sixth Amendment) Bill 2008 (the Sixth Amendment). This was intended to enable the Government to exploit the recent discovery of oil in the country. Clause 2 of the Sixth Amendment thus sought to disapply the protection afforded by s. 17(1) of the Constitution to the owners of :

‘petroleum minerals and accompanying substances, in whatever physical state located on or under the territory of Belize…the entire property and control over which are exclusively vested, and shall be deemed always to have been so vested, in the Government of Belize.’

The purported effect of the legislation would thus have been to deny to the owners of any such interests in land the right to apply to the courts for compensation in the event of being arbitrarily deprived of such interests by the State.

Lawyers for the Attorney General argued that since the Sixth Amendment had been approved by the special three quarters majority required by s.69 of the Constitution there could be no challenge to its constitutionality. Chief Justice Conteh, however, disagreed. In his view the law-making powers of the Belizean Parliament are not unlimited in as much as the Belizean Parliament cannot ‘legitimately’ make laws that are contrary to the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution itself. In the Chief Justice’s view, the basic structure comprised not only the fundamental rights guaranteed by Chapter II of the Constitution, but also the principles, ideas, beliefs and desires of the people of Belize as enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution, which include, among other things, respect for the rule of law and the right of the individual to the ownership of private property. The Chief Justice also had regard to the principle of the separation of powers, which had previously been recognised by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) into be a basic feature of the structure of the Westminster type Constitutions adopted by Commonwealth Caribbean countries upon independence (Hinds v The Queen [1977] AC 195) . This principle would be violated if the citizens of Belize were to be denied access to the courts for compensation for the arbitrary derivation of their property by the State.

But what about the approval of the legislation by a special majority of the National Assembly? Was this to count for nothing? In the Chief Justice’s view, s.69 was a mere ‘manner and form’ requirement, no more than a ‘procedural handbook’[101], and was certainly not determinative of the constitutionality of legislation enacted by Parliament. Quite apart from the formal procedures laid down by s.69, any prospective amendment of the Constitution had to conform to the Constitution’s normative requirements as captured by section 68, which provides that all laws enacted by Parliament must be ‘subject to the Constitution’[105] – [107]. Any other view would entail subordinating the supremacy of the constitution in favour of parliamentary supremacy, for once the required majority for an amendment is obtained then absolutely no constitutional provision would be beyond alteration or revocation [120].

Following the judgment in Bowen, the Government amended clause 2 of the Sixth Amendment to provide that nothing in the amended s. 17 would affect the rights of the owner of any private land beneath which any petroleum deposits are located to receive royalties from the Government (For an account of the fall out from the ‘Bowen’ litigation see Prime Minister Belize v Vellos [2010] UKPC 7).  As we shall see, however, this did not mean that the Government was prepared to accept the limitations placed on the Belizean Parliament’s law-making powers by the Supreme Court in Bowen.

In the second case, British Caribbean Bank Ltd v AG Belize Claim No. 597 of 2011, the applicant had originally challenged the constitutionality of the Belize Telecommunications (Amendment) Act 2009 (TCA 2009), the purpose of which had been to enable the Government compulsorily to acquire the properties, rights and interests held by the applicants in Belize Telemedia Ltd, a major provider of telecommunications services in Belize. Though the challenge to the constitutionality of the legislation had been dismissed at first instance it had been upheld by the Court of Appeal on the grounds, inter alia, that the TCA 2009 was contrary to the right to property under s.17(1) of the Constitution in so far as it did not prescribe the principles on which reasonable compensation was to be paid for the acquisition of the applicant’s property within a reasonable time.

In response to the Court of Appeal’s judgment the Government secured the enactment of the Belize Telecommunications (Amendment) Act 2011 (TCA 2011), which sought to address some of the problems with the TCA 2009 that had been identified by the Court of Appeal.  At the same time, and in order to put the renationalisation of the telecommunications industry beyond doubt, the Government also secured the enactment of the Belize Constitution (Eighth) Amendment Act 2011 (the Eighth Amendment). The Eighth Amendment not only sought to disapply the ‘supreme law’ clause of the Constitution to ‘a law to alter any of the provisions of this Constitution which is passed by the National Assembly in conformity with s.69 of the Constitution,’ but also expressly declared that ‘the provisions of [s.69] are all-inclusive and exhaustive and there is no other limitation, whether substantive or procedural, on the power of the National Assembly to alter this Constitution.’ As the Prime Minister frankly admitted, this was in direct response to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Bowen (See A Fiadjoe, ‘Legal Opinion on the Ninth Amendment Bill of Belize)Additionally, the Eighth Amendment added a new Part XIII to the Constitution, the effect of which was, firstly, to define the meaning of ‘public utilities;’ secondly, to vest majority ownership and control of all public utility providers in the Government; and, thirdly, by s.145(1) and (2), to declare that the Government’s acquisition of such public utilities was duly carried out for a public purpose.

A challenge to the constitutionality of the Eight Amendment was, however, upheld by the Supreme Court, which concurred with the judgment of Chief Justice Conteh in Bowen in concluding that the National Assembly is not legally authorised to make any amendment to the Constitution that would remove or destroy any of the basic structure of the Constitution of Belize [45]. Since the cumulative effect of the Eighth Amendment was to preclude the Court from determining whether the arbitrary deprivation of property by the Government was for a public purpose, the Eighth Amendment offended the principle of the separation of powers and the basic structure doctrine of the Constitution. To this extent the amendments to the Constitution were unlawful, null and void.

Though the basic structure doctrine has now been prayed in aid by the Belize Supreme Court on two occasions, it has not yet been endorsed by any higher court in the region; an appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice against the Court of Appeal’s refusal to award consequential relief to the applicants following its original judgment in British Caribbean Bank Ltd v Belize having been stayed pending the challenge to the TCA 2011. It is, as a consequence, difficult to predict whether the basic structure doctrine is likely to be taken up by other courts in the region. Potentially, at least, it is a very interesting jurisprudential development in a region where governments seem to be increasingly willing to amend their country’s constitution with a view to depriving their courts of the right to review the constitutionality of actions of the executive when implementing the death penalty even if they violate the right not to be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and to preserve legislation which criminalises homosexuality (See, for example, Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms).

However, the basic structure doctrine represents a significant departure from over a century’s worth of jurisprudence on the powers of legislatures, like those of the Commonwealth Caribbean, which are empowered by their constitution: to ‘make laws for the peace, order and good government ’ of their country. The plenary nature of the power thus granted was recognized by the JCPC in a series of historic decisions at the close of the nineteenth century, such as Riel v The Queen (1885) 10 AppCas 675, in which Lord Halsbury rejected the contention that a statute was invalid if a court concluded that it was not calculated as a matter of fact and policy to secure ‘peace, order and good government.’ The basic structure doctrine is also very difficult to reconcile with the following dicta of Lord Diplock in Hinds:

Where…a constitution on the Westminster model represents the final step in the attainment of full independence by the peoples of a former colony or protectorate, the Constitution provides machinery whereby any its provisions, whether relating to fundamental rights and freedoms, or to the stratum of government and the allocation to its various organs of legislative, executive or judicial powers, may be altered by those peoples through their elected representatives in the Parliament acting by specific majorities, which is generally all that is required (at 214).

Judicial attitudes towards constitutional review of legislation have, however, changed dramatically since Lord Diplock’s judgment in Hinds. In addition to the further development of the basic structure doctrine by the Indian Supreme Court, the South African Constitutional Court has asserted its power to review the content of constitutional amendments if they violated certain implied limits, (Premier of Kwazuly Natal v President of South Africa CCT 36/95) and the High Court of Australia has recognized that its Parliament’s law-making powers are subject to limitations which may be implied ‘in and from the text of the Constitution’(Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Willis (1992) 108 ALR 681 at 701-722). Even in Britain, in the absence of a codified constitution, a theory of common law constitutionalism has emerged, which is reflected in the dicta of a number of their Lordships in the case of Jackson v Attorney General [2005] UKHL 56 to the effect that the British Parliament, which has traditionally been regarded as legislatively supreme, may be subject to certain implied constitutional limits. As Lord Steyn remarked:

In exceptional circumstances involving an attempt to abolish judicial review or the ordinary role of the courts, the House of Lords may have to consider whether this is a constitutional fundamental which even a sovereign Parliament cannot abolish [102].

It is, of course, one thing to pronounce hypothetically on the possibility of striking down legislation which infringes an implied constitutional limit: it is quite another to do as the Supreme Court of Belize has done and to strike down legislation to amend the constitution which has the support of no less than three quarters of the National Assembly. The challenge to representative democracy by the Supreme Court in these two cases could not be clearer. It is worthwhile noting, however, that, notwithstanding the radical nature of the Supreme Court’s decision in both cases the Government has not sought to appeal against either judgment and may be assumed, therefore, to have accepted ultimately that there are, indeed, some implied limits on the legislature’s power to amend the Constitution, irrespective of the support for the legislation that the Government may have been able to garner in Parliament.

Derek O’Brien is Principal Lecturer, Law School, Oxford Brookes University.

Suggested citation: D. O’Brien, ‘The Basic Structure Doctrine and the Courts of the Commonwealth Caribbean’  UK Const. L. Blog (28th May 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).


Filed under Caribbean, Comparative law, Judicial review

Se-shauna Wheatle: The Residual Powers of the Court

There has, justifiably, been much debate about the implications of the judgments of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in R (Jackson) v Attorney General [2005] UKHL 56, [2006] AC 262 and AXA General Insurance Ltd v The Scottish Ministers [2011] UKSC 46, [2011] 3 WLR 871. What is perhaps the most constitutionally significant aspect of these judgments is the court’s professed residual power to review legislation on common law grounds. The term ‘residual power’ is the coinage used by Lord Reed in a seminar conducted at Balliol College, Oxford, on May 2, 2012. The very labelling of the power as residual is significant because it evokes questions about the source of the power and the frequency with which it be deployed. The label ‘residual’ suggests that the power is not to be located in the text of a statute. This is rather basic, but is of course, one source of controversy surrounding the very assertion of this residual power. The fact that it is not located in a statutory text raises questions as to the democratic legitimacy of the power; it also heightens concerns about the scope of such a power and about the wisdom of permitting judges to delineate the scope of that power. Beyond the question of legitimacy lie further questions about the implications of the judgments in Jackson and AXA with respect to the definition and application of the purported residual power to review legislation. I will first distinguish the residual powers asserted by judges in the two cases, discuss whether the vagueness of the residual powers poses a problem, and end with a note on the precedential impact of the judgments.

1.     The Purported Residual Powers of the Court

Two residual categories have been identified by the Law Lords in these two cases. The first of these is ‘exceptional circumstances review’ as outlined by Lord Steyn in Jackson and Lord Hope in AXA. This category of review may arise where a statute violates the rule of law and the court is required to invalidate the statute because of its duty to protect the rule of law. The second is where review can be justified on the principle of legality as outlined by Lord Reed in AXA. The latter branch of residual power is potentially more limited than the former in at least two senses. It is conceptually more limited in that, though Lord Reed invokes the rule of law in support of this power, it is based more specifically on the principle of legality. For Lord Reed, then, the court’s residual power to invalidate legislation rests on the presumption of legality, which ‘means not only that Parliament cannot itself override fundamental rights or the rule of law by general or ambiguous words, but also that it cannot confer on another body, by general or ambiguous words, the power to do so.’ This is a restatement of the principle of legality as articulated by Lord Steyn in Reg. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex parte Pierson [1998] AC 539 and Lords Steyn and Hoffmann in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p Simms [2000] 2 AC 115. Secondly, legality-based power is of more limited scope in its applicability. Insofar as it allows courts to disapply or invalidate legislation, it appears to only be applicable to subordinate legislatures because Lord Reed’s reasoning on the principle of legality is that Parliament cannot, by general or ambiguous words, confer on another body the power to override fundamental rights or the rule of law [152-153].  The principle is therefore quite potent as applied to legislation of a subordinate legislature because it would allow the court to invalidate a statute or statutory provision as outwith the powers of that legislative body. As applied to a sovereign Parliament such as the UK Parliament, the principle allows for (creative) interpretation of Acts of Parliament but not outright judicial rejection of such legislation. By contrast, the power identified by Lord Steyn in Jackson and Lord Hope in AXA has the potential to be much broader, encompassing the potential for review of legislation enacted by the UK Parliament.

2.     Vagueness: Problem? What Problem?

Commentators have rightly indicated that the residual categories (particularly ‘exceptional circumstances’ review based on the rule of law) suffer from a vagueness problem. The vagueness arises in at least two areas. The first is the lack of clarity as to what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’. This in turn raises questions as to the rule of law values which would have to be threatened and as to degree of threat to such values which would provoke the court’s intervention. The second area of vagueness is that it is unclear what action or intervention such a threat might provoke from the courts. Will the court’s intervention appear in the form of extremely creative (re)interpretation of statute, disapplication of a statute in a particular case or invalidation of a statute? The vagueness inherent in the exceptional circumstances category may be defended on the ground that as a residual power, there must be uncertainty in its formulation. Yet, it is not entirely convincing that a residual category must necessarily be vague. A residual power could be formulated to permit the court’s intervention only in circumstances where legislation seeks to abolish judicial review, thereby interfering with access to the courts. This was one of the examples given by Lord Steyn in Jackson [102] and it is conceivable that exceptional circumstances review could be limited to exceptional possibility. The problem is that Lord Steyn did not limit the circumstances to such cases nor did he provide a definite indication of the scope of ‘exceptional circumstances’. It is arguable that the judges have quite deliberately left the category vague in order to allow flexibility for the court to develop the category as it sees fit and to craft what it deems to be an appropriate response to circumstances it has not, and perhaps could not have foreseen. Perhaps more importantly, Lord Reed in the seminar at Balliol College, took the view that it was ‘not a problem’ that the content of the ‘rule of law’ and ‘fundamental rights’ which underlie both categories of residual power are vague. In his view, this may encourage authorities to be more careful. This argument in defence of the vagueness of the scope of the residual powers emphasizes the inter-institutional dialogue that is at play in AXA and Jackson.

3.     Inter-Institutional Dialogue and Setting Precedents

It has been accurately observed that some of the obiter dicta in Jackson were a direct response to the proposed Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Bill, which would have sought to oust judicial review of decisions of the court, even where those decisions were alleged to be in breach of natural justice. One could therefore be tempted to relegate these judicial pronouncements to the realm of inter-institutional dialogue and as mere warning shots directed at the government and Parliament. This, however, does not mean that we must not take the judges seriously. AXA is proof of the need to take the assertion of residual powers of the court seriously and of the need to debate the practical implications of the purported residual powers of the courts and to interrogate the normative justification for such powers. It is true that the actual judgment in AXA was limited to finding that the Supreme Court had power to review Acts of the Scottish Parliament on the common law grounds identified by the judges, however, this in itself is a significant development which was based, in part, on the dicta in Jackson regarding the power to review Acts of the UK Parliament.  Further, Lord Hope’s judgment in AXA, with which the other Law Lords concurred, stated that ‘[t]he question whether the principle of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament is absolute or may be subject to limitation in exceptional circumstances is still under discussion.’ [50] Out of inter-institutional dialogue, the roots of dramatic precedent may spring up. We should not discount the role of persuasive precedent in developing the law, particularly the ‘uncharted territory’ of constitutional law which arose for discussion in these two cases.

It remains to be seen exactly how these judgments will affect the development of constitutional theory and practice. The issues raised in this piece, and others that have been discussed elsewhere, must be addressed. The judgments are, at least, one step in grappling with the tension that may arise between parliamentary sovereignty and other constitutional principles.

Se-shauna Wheatle is a DPhil Candidate at Balliol College, and Lecturer in Law, Exeter College, University of Oxford.


Filed under Human rights, Judicial review, Judiciary

Mike Gordon: What is the Point of Exceptional Circumstances Review?

A great deal of the controversy surrounding the recent case of Axa General Insurance Ltd v Lord Advocate [2011] UKSC 46, already much discussed on this blog, stems from the notion of ‘exceptional circumstances review’.  The Supreme Court’s decision that it has the authority as a matter of common law to reject Acts of the Scottish Parliament (ASPs) in exceptional circumstances raises a range of important constitutional questions:  is the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Scotland Act 1998, and in particular section 29, compelling, or could the legislation be read to exhaust the possibility of common law limits on ASPs?  Is it normatively attractive for courts to arrogate to themselves the final say over the constitutionality of legislation enacted by a democratic legislature?  Is the power outlined by the Supreme Court in Axa only effective against the primary legislation enacted by devolved legislatures, or is the sovereignty of the UK Parliament also now threatened?

Doubtlessly other critical questions can also be identified, and yet, as important as these issues are, this post will focus on a more general matter.  Is the very notion of exceptional circumstances review, detached from some of the particularities of the UK constitution, a useful one?  Such an approach seems appropriate in light of Lord Hope’s comments in Axa that in developing such a power, the Supreme Court was in ‘uncharted territory’, with the issue therefore having ‘to be addressed as one of principle’ [48].

It might initially be objected that the point of exceptional circumstances review is obvious – it serves to prevent gravely iniquitous legislation from being recognised as law – rendering further reflection on its purpose essentially redundant.  Yet while we may all agree that the avoidance of bad law is a worthwhile objective, it is not at all clear that giving courts the authority to review legislation in exceptional circumstances is an effective way to achieve it.  Two particular issues with the concept can be discerned.

1)    What circumstances count as exceptional?

The very notion of exceptional circumstances is inherently vague, offering little indication as to the scope or content of the power claimed.  Even if we accept that such a power would be exercised only in genuinely exceptional situations (although as Jeffrey Goldsworthy and Mark Tushnet have both argued, it is in the nature of courts to seek to test the boundaries of a power once obtained, and in so doing expand its scope beyond what was originally envisaged), we will necessarily be reliant on judicial evaluations of exceptionality.  And while such judgments may well be contestable, perhaps the bigger problem is that they are likely to be difficult to predict.

If we return to Axa for a moment, the consideration there given to exceptional circumstances offers sparse guidance as to the situations in which the Supreme Court’s new authority will be invoked.  The rule of law is cited by both Lord Hope [51] and Lord Reed [149] as constituting the ‘ultimate controlling factor’ at the root of the court’s new power, but the deployment of such a disputed, fluid concept only serves to amplify, rather than cure, the already conspicuous uncertainty.  An alternative (or perhaps complementary?) foundation suggested by both judges is that of fundamental individual rights, yet even if an account of such rights could be agreed, little clarity is gained unless we can also establish the level of interference that will be unjustifiable.

Beyond Axa, other immutable values that require absolute protection might also be identified; Lord Steyn, for example, argues in R. (Jackson) v Attorney General [2005] UKHL 56 that ‘oppressive and wholly undemocratic legislation’ could not be tolerated [102].  Yet the difficulty persists in relation to this formulation too, for the truly critical problem is not in identifying appropriate abstract values, but that those values must remain abstract to attract broad acceptance.  Indeed, it is when we come to differentiate between those violations of the rule of law, or fundamental rights, or democracy that are tolerable, and those that are exceptionally intolerable, that consensus is liable to break down, with the corollary that the likelihood of judicial intervention becomes hard to foresee.

The uncertainty inherent in determining what is an exceptional violation of constitutional principle makes this power remote from ordinary citizens and inadequate for political decision-makers.  Citizens will find it a challenge to determine whether legislation that offends their conception of justice will be similarly received by the judiciary, making a decision to seek judicial review fraught with complexity.  Legislators and officials will glean little useful guidance as to how they should properly exercise their power from the underdeveloped premise that flawed legislation may be exceptionally struck down.  And with so little which is clear and certain settled in advance, any judicial decision to exercise, or not to exercise, this authority may appear arbitrary to aggrieved parties.  There is therefore little to recommend the cultivation of a power of exceptional circumstances review over the protection of fundamental values through some variety of Bill of Rights, regardless of how imperfect we might believe such rights instruments to be.

2)    Is this a legal power at all?

One potential response to what has been argued above is that such a power to reject legislation should only be used where there is no uncertainty.  The judicial exercise of such a power would, in other words, be justified where there existed comprehensive agreement as to the exceptional deficiency of some specific legislative act.  But how, in practice, would it ever be possible for the circumstances of such agreement to be satisfactorily established?

We might then, in contrast, question whether such a power which can only be imprecisely formulated is really a legal power at all.  This is not to claim that such a vague power is conceptually incapable of being considered legal, but to query whether the Supreme Court has actually articulated exceptional circumstances review as a legal doctrine.  It seems clear that this is a power designed not to be used.  It would be extremely difficult for courts to settle definitively the kind of constitutional crises in which an exceptional power to reject legislation could conceivably be invoked.  Would we really seek to challenge a genuinely fundamental repudiation of constitutional values through litigation?  Even if an expedited means of bringing legal proceedings were available, courts are simply not equipped to prevail over other institutions of government in brute constitutional conflicts, and would be unlikely to be able to provide any effective relief in times of severe political strife.  While this power remains unused, however, it also goes essentially unchallenged, and maintains a degree of relevance in constitutional discourse, even if this is only notional.

It might, then, be better to understand judicial assertions about exceptional circumstances review as an emanation of inter-institutional manoeuvring, rather than a claim about the power of the courts under the present constitutional order to reject legislative acts in crisis situations.  Courts as institutions lack a formal outlet through which they can encourage the legislature, or the government that controls it, to take rights, or the rule of law, or democracy, seriously.  Yet it is possible for the courts to communicate with the other institutions of government through their reported judgments, and a threat to establish a supervisory jurisdiction over legislative functions could be seen to have a similar effect as such encouragement.  In light of this, it is perhaps significant that the only specific example of exceptional circumstances offered both in Axa [51] and Jackson [102] is legislative action to oust or abolish the courts’ ordinary power of judicial review over administrative action, with the notion of the rule of law arguably used here as a conduit to protect the judges’ jurisdiction against encroachment by other institutions.  A court may purport, therefore, to be developing a jurisdiction to reject legislation in extreme situations, yet we can make sense of such endeavours without concluding that this is a power they do in fact possess as a matter of constitutional law.

Yet if judicial claims about the potential for exceptional circumstances review are simply a means of reemphasising the importance of a number of fundamental constitutional values to the other institutions of government, are they really of any great interest?  After all, when it is considered that these fundamental principles must already underpin the existing constitutional settlement, and be embedded to a substantial extent in constitutional practice, the judicial reiteration of their significance may appear to be a rather banal message, in contrast with the controversial means of its delivery.  Further, given the abstraction necessarily involved in their formulation, the invocation of such elementary principles, devoid of critical detail, will do little to assist with the resolution of the sort of difficult constitutional questions which must be confronted in mundane, as well as exceptional, situations.

What then, we might wonder, is the point of exceptional circumstances review?


Dr Mike Gordon is Lecturer in Public Law at the Liverpool Law School, University of Liverpool.

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Dawn Oliver: Parliamentary Sovereignty: A Pragmatic or Principled Doctrine?

Imagine that Parliament has recently passed a provision authorising the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists. The measure was passed during a public panic about terrorism. Public opinion and the press and parliamentarians of the party in government which promoted the legislation were strongly in favour of using such powers. The Home Secretary orders the detention under that provision of suspect A. A applies to the court for release on the ground that the provision in the Act is contrary to fundamental common law principles and the European Convention on  Human Rights. The court finds that the Act is indeed defective in these ways, that compliance by state bodies with fundamental common law principles and the ECHR is a requirement of the rule of law (as it is understood by the courts), a constitutional principle which binds all bodies including Parliament.   The court orders the minister to rescind his order for the detention of A and orders the prison governor to release A.

What would happen if the minister refused to obey the court order? It would be easy to reply: ‘The minister would be committed for contempt of court if he refused to release or order the release of the suspect, of course’, implying that this is an obvious answer to an obviously stupid question. But the implications of such a finding for the relationships between politicians and the courts need to be thought through before such an answer is accepted.

Our system, particularly because we lack a written constitution which is considered by the institutions of government and by the public to legitimate such activities of the courts, depends for its working in part upon mutual respect between institutions, particularly between the courts on the one hand and Parliament and executive bodies on the other. Lord Carswell had this in mind in his speech in the Jackson case when he referred to the mutual respect which has long existed between the legislature and the courts, and he expressed reluctance to endanger that tradition.

According to M v Home Office, a court might, having made an order which a minister disobeyed, just declare the minister to be in contempt. A mere declaration would not do the court’s authority any good at all in this hypothetical situation. It is unlikely that the press or the members of the House of Commons would take the court’s side and press the government to respond positively to the declaration. If the declaration were ignored, the lesson that the executive learned would be that it can get away with such responses to the courts. Would we want that?

Alternatively the court could commit the Home Secretary to prison for contempt. The Minister of Justice might then order the prison governor to release the Home Secretary on the basis that it was unconstitutional, anti-democratic and unlawful – a breach of the rule of law as understood by politicians – for the court to refuse to give effect to an Act of Parliament. The prison governor might obey the Minister of Justice and release the Home Secretary while continuing to detain A, and so himself be committed for contempt, along with the Minister of Justice.  The battle would continue, with press and public opinion probably behind the ministers.

So such a court order might turn out not to be practically enforceable if resisted by government on the ground that it was not legitimate for the courts to change the law unilaterally in such a way. Or, if the order was enforced, the backlash might be that Parliament legislates to politicise the judicial appointment system, the courts could then be packed with judges sympathetic to the government, the Court Service could come under ministerial directions as to the deployment of judges and the listing of cases so as to ensure that ‘unreliable’ judges did not sit on certain kinds of case, ouster clauses could become commonplace. And so on. I think the courts would be defeated, and in the end the Supreme Court would exercise its power under the Practice Statement of 1966 to reverse its position and reinstate the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy. But by then untold damage would have been done to the respect in which the courts are held in government, in Parliament and by the general public and to good relations between those institutions. The rule of law itself (as generally understood in legal circles) would have been weakened. The culture would have changed.

The relationship between the executive and the courts in the UK, lacking as it does a written constitution which defines that relationship, depends upon reciprocity, trust, cooperation – the basic elements of human social interaction.  Any system of government involves such interaction. If those collapse then the very constitutional system itself might collapse into recurring conflicts between the courts and the executive, tit for tat battles, ostracism of the courts by ministers, and mistrust. It is by no means certain that the rule of law would win over politics and parliamentary supremacy in such a situation.

But, you will be thinking, surely this hypothetical is fanciful: normally ministers do obey court orders. Yes – and that is part of the culture of the rule of law. But if the courts were to challenge parliamentary supremacy, ministers would be able to invoke a whole lot of arguments in support of their refusal to obey the court, arguments which do not apply in relation to other cases – democracy, separation of powers, etc. Indeed it is likely that there would be a great hue and cry against the courts not only from the government, but from MPs, the press and the public. In my view therefore it could well be extremely unwise, damaging to the authority of the judiciary and the rule of law itself and to the stability of our constitutional arrangements, and counter- productive for the courts to strike down a provision in an Act, however much it is contrary to some of the elements of the rule of law and other constitutional ‘principles’. Bear in mind that the duties of judges are not limited to upholding individuals’ rights. They include ensuring the practical working of constitutional arrangements, for instance relationships with the EU and between the UK and devolved bodies, which in turn facilitate the rule of law. There are in other words respectable consequentialist reasons for judges in the UK accepting parliamentary sovereignty and holding back from making judgments that might be impossible to enforce against the executive in such a nuclear option situation, especially when we take into account the non-legal environment in which government and Parliament operate in the UK and which uphold constitutional principles.

So in my view a ‘principle’ that the rule of law is the controlling principle and might entitle courts to disapply statutory provisions – as Lord Hope indicated in Jackson – would come up against the typical, pragmatic and wise English response: that is all very well in principle and theory, but what about the practice? The practice of striking down legislation in our unwritten constitution and constitutional culture would not work.

Thus I suggest that an important rationale for the British courts’ recognition of Acts of Parliament as the highest form of law is based in comity between institutions and workability: pragmatic principles established over centuries that the courts will refrain from questioning the legal validity of Acts passed by the UK Parliament, and members of the two Houses of Parliament will respect the courts and their decisions and will not seek to undermine them and the rule of law.

I suspect therefore that the dominant though unarticulated reason why courts in the UK accept parliamentary sovereignty is that it represents a way of avoiding a conflict between the courts and the executive which the courts could not win. It could well be different if the UK had a written Constitution which mandated the courts to refuse to give effect to ‘unconstitutional’ laws. But that is not the current position.

This is not something that the judges, or others as far as I know, have discussed publicly. But Lord Justice Stephen Sedley had the following to say in his LRB review of Vernon Bogdanor’s book The New British Constitution (2009).

‘…what would happen in real life if the higher courts treated … a withdrawal of their jurisdiction [by a provision in an Act which ousted judicial review of a tribunal’s decisions on asylum claims] as unconstitutional, ignored it and allowed an asylum seeker’s appeal? The home secretary, not recognising their jurisdiction, would proceed with deportation, and the court would arraign him for contempt. How would it end? We do not know, and most of us would prefer not to find out’.

Sedley discussed the issue again in Ashes and Sparks (2011). Commenting on what would have happened if the ouster clause in the Immigration and Asylum (Treatment of Claimants) Bill had been passed, if the courts had refused to give effect to it, and if the Home Secretary had been found to be in contempt for disobeying their order, he wrote:

‘And then? There would be no winner, no famous victory even, in such a confrontation. Even so …. it was  not necessarily a bad thing that [the proposed ouster clause] had gone as far as it had: the government had realised that there were limits to what it could properly ask Parliament to do; constitutional lawyers had realised that the limits were less secure than they had thought, and the sky still seemed to be in place’.

Interestingly, in relation to our close constitutional cousin, New Zealand, Matthew Palmer has recently written that:

‘Institutionally, over the long term and particularly in New Zealand, the independence of the judiciary depends on the forbearance of the political branches of government. Cabinet and Parliament have the formal tools available in New Zealand’s constitution to undermine the independence of the judiciary if they wished: through appointments, dismissals, under-resourcing or restructuring various benches.’

Palmer suggests that the approach of parliamentarians is based in part on the high standing of the judiciary in public opinion; that standing could be damaged by a series of negative public reactions to judicial decisions and ‘… whether consciously or unconsciously, the judiciary, especially at the level of Heads of Bench and the Supreme Court, understands and should understand the importance of public opinion, according to a medium and long-term perspective, for the sustenance of its branch of government’.

Griffith was right in ‘The Political Constitution’ that many parts of our constitution (not all) are the outcome of conflicts. The restoration of parliamentary sovereignty would be the outcome of a conflict between the courts and the executive, but the courts would have lost authority and face in the course of that conflict.

Dawn Oliver is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at University College London. 


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