At one level, it seems reasonable to characterise executive-judicial relations as strained. In recent weeks, after all, concerns have been raised by senior judges, or on their behalf, on a range of matters—including (the now withdrawn) Schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill that would have given ministers the power to modify, merge or abolish a large number of public bodies, including the Judicial Appointments Commission (see here and here); Part 4 of the Pensions Bill, which provides that ministers may require judges to contribute to the costs of their pensions, whereas at the moment judges only contribute to the costs of benefits for their spouses and dependents (see here); as well as aspects of the finance and administration of the UKSC (see here). At the same time, the PM and Home Secretary have spoken of being ‘appalled’ by the UKSC’s 2010 decision in R(F) on the notification requirements for sexual offenders, with the PM also outspoken on the ECtHR’s 2005 ruling in Hirst v UK (No. 2) on prisoners’ votes. But, at another level, the characterisation of executive-judicial relations as strained risks concealing more than it reveals, and for three main reasons.
First, public lawyers often use shorthand when discussing institutional relationships. For example, we refer to ‘executive-legislative relations’ when discussing Parliament’s powers or the ability of Parliament to hold the Government to account. Often the implication, as Anthony King noted in an article in 1976, is that there is one body called Parliament and another called the Government, with our aim to study the relationship between the two. Yet, as King explained, if we really want to understand the various phenomena subsumed under such a broad heading as ‘executive-legislative relations’, we need to study a number of distinct political relationships (including those between and within different chambers, between Government and Opposition and between and within different political parties). King’s basic point—and, in one sense, it is a very basic point and yet, at the same time, marvellously subtle—is that shorthand such as ‘executive-legislative relations’ conceals multiple, complex relationships, each with its own dynamic. So what then do we mean by ‘executive-judicial relations’? Following King, we can take this as shorthand for distinct but sometimes overlapping relationships. For a start, there is not simply one ‘judiciary’ or one ‘executive’ relevant to UK public lawyers; rather, there are multiple judiciaries and executives in our multi-layered polity. We might speculate that relations appear strained between UK Ministers and the UKSC, and those ministers and the ECtHR. Or similarly we might have speculated that, following Cadder, relations between Scottish Ministers and the UKSC were strained. But, in each case, we ought to offer our speculative assessments whilst reserving judgment about other relationships. The point, here, is that we have to specify which executive and judiciary we have in mind when talking of strained relations.
Second, even then, we would likely have in mind relations between only some part of the executive and some part of the judiciary and only on certain issues. Are relations between the Lord Chancellor and the UKSC strained? On the one hand, the Lord Chancellor gave short shrift to the concerns raised by Lord Phillips about the funding of the UKSC and the position of its Chief Executive (see here). As Joshua Rozenberg put it, Lord Phillips ‘learned the hard way’ that a judge ‘who takes on the government in the court of public opinion is bound to end up second best’. On the other hand, reports a week later suggested that the Lord Chancellor had sent a ‘furious letter’ to the Home Secretary, copied to the PM, rebuking her (and, indirectly, the PM) for intemperate comments on the UKSC’s decision in R(F). Leave to one side the question of whether Theresa May’s comments were in fact intemperate, or whether this was simply the sort of ‘no-holds-barred constitutional politics’ that Danny Nicol suggests that we should expect under the HRA. Leave also to one side the question of how ministers ought to react, particularly on the floor of the House, where they are genuinely appalled by some judicial decision. The point, here, is that different parts of the executive have different relations with different parts of the judiciary, with clashes between ministers and judges only ever one part of the story. What is more, the same minister can have differing relations with the same part of the judiciary on different issues.
Third, strained relationships between ministers and judges are sometimes as much about some aspect of ‘executive-legislative relations’ as ‘executive-judicial relations’. Consider, for example, the timing of Theresa May’s ministerial statement on R(F) in mid-February. This statement was made 10 months after the original decision, but less than a week after the House of Commons’ debated the blanket ban on voting by prisoners, where MPs backed a motion stating inter alia that ‘legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers’. Had the Home Office long been planning to respond to the s4 declaration in R(F) in mid-February? Was someone in government pushing for the statement to be made sooner than planned in order to intensify debates about the HRA, the ECHR and a British Bill of Rights? Was the timing of the statement a sop to Conservative backbenchers riled by other aspects of the Coalition Government’s constitutional agenda, coming as it did on the same day that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 received Royal Assent? None of this should be read as to dismiss the importance of ministerial criticism of this or that judicial decision or political debate about issues such as prisoners’ voters or the post-sentence monitoring of sexual offenders. As King noted in his article, the views of Government backbenchers matter because they are seldom speaking for themselves. Their views on knotty question such as the proper role of courts are likely to be held by some, and perhaps many, inside the Government, as well as parts of the public at large. The point is simply that, at times, it may not be best to construe apparent clashes between ministers and judges solely in terms of ‘executive-judicial relations’, but to see them as related to those larger, complex relationships that we conflate under the shorthand of ‘executive-legislative relations’.
Graham Gee is a Lecturer in Law at Birmingham University.