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In a recent interview in The Spectator, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling MP, was given another opportunity to recite the now characteristic Tory Siren call relating to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg court. In the piece, Grayling bemoans the “utterly unacceptable” and “almost unlimited” ability of the European Court of Human Rights to determine “what it thinks are human rights matters” arguing that:
“We have to curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK, get rid of and replace Labour’s Human Rights Act. We have to make sure that there is a proper balance of rights and responsibilities in law.”
The precise means of achieving these objectives, it seems, remain works in progress (with complete withdrawal from the Convention system still one possible outcome). But one thing seems clear; in effecting the necessary reforms the “supremacy” of the UK Supreme Court must – Grayling claims – be restored. Grayling is recorded as having said the following:
“I want to see our Supreme Court being supreme again. I think people want to see the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom being in the United Kingdom and not in Strasbourg.”
Though Grayling’s hyperbole is entertaining (does anyone seriously think that we are governed from Strasbourg other than after reading occasionally inaccurate reports as to the location of the Court of Justice of the European Union? (and even then?!)), it would be glib (albeit correct) to point out that the Supreme Court has never actually been “supreme”. The UK Supreme Court is not, and nor has it ever been, a constitutional court possessing a final and definitive authority over questions of law that is binding on the other arms of government and immune from override via the ordinary legislative process. A Lord Chancellor who holds office by virtue of the same Act (s.2, CRA 2005) which established the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (part III, CRA 2005) should, of course, be assumed to appreciate this (though some would argue that the same assumptions could not necessarily be made in respect of other key provisions of that Act – s.1, CRA, say).
But even were the Human Rights Act done away with and the UK’s membership of the European Convention system ended, would the UK Supreme Court be rendered “supreme”?
The UK Supreme Court is at the apex of the United Kingdom’s judicial structure with general jurisdiction as the final appellate court in matters other than those falling within the remit of the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. It is “supreme” therefore in the sense that it stands at a pinnacle of the domestic judicial hierarchy and – as argued in a recent piece in Public Law ( PL 800) – it exercises a significant constitutional role displaying a number of the characteristics of explicitly constitutional courts elsewhere. But the Supreme Court’s “supremacy” needs also to be appreciated in the light of a number of other considerations.
First among these is the (competing? complementary?) supremacy of Parliament. While we might be able to say with confidence that a Supreme Court decision in a particular area represents a definitive reading of the requirements of the law, we can also say that Supreme Court decisions – including those dealing with questions of individuals’ rights – are susceptible to changes in primary legislation. As Lord Bingham noted in the House of Lords in Re McFarland:
“Just as the courts must apply Acts of Parliament whether they approve of them or not, and give effect to lawful official decisions whether they agree with them or not, so Parliament and the executive must respect judicial decisions whether they approve of them or not, unless and until they are set aside.”
In reality there is some circularity to claims of supremacy made on behalf of courts or Parliament. Neither can realistically be asserted without qualification of some sort, but the bare fact is the effects of judicial decisions of the apex court (eg YL v Birmingham City Council) can be amended by primary legislation (eg Health and Social Care Act 2008, s.145).
While the idea of the unbounded legal power associated with Parliamentary supremacy may have lost some of its lustre, it undoubtedly remains an important conditioning factor of constitutional practice for actors across the branches of government. For many, it remains the “bedrock” of the constitution (Bingham, at ). Yet – to muddy the waters further – even if we accept the legislative supremacy of Parliament we need also to be mindful that it acts as camouflage for the legal supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords and the practical precedence of government business in the House of Commons.
The contest for supremacy does not end here; the Supreme Court currently operates within the context of the jurisdictions of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union. It is the former that has been most clearly the subject of the Conservatives’ ire in recent times, though the latter through which the Supreme Court is most clearly subordinated to an external source of law claiming supremacy over national laws. As is now well-appreciated – particularly in the light of the decisions such as Horncastle – the Supreme Court is not obliged to give effect to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in quite the same way as it must apply directly-effective provisions of EU law. The supremacy “lost” to the European Court of Human Rights (decisions of which – at risk of sounding like a broken record – need only to be “taken into account”) is of a different order to the supremacy asserted by the Court of Justice of the European Union over national authorities. It seems unusual then, that the target of Grayling’s indignation is the supposed denial of supremacy caused by the non-binding influence of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, rather than the more realistic (though perhaps equally problematic) assertion that legal competence has been ceded in some way to the Court of Justice. (This is not to suggest that the UK’s position within the EU is not perceived as being problematic – indeed Grayling’s Spectator interview alludes to an intended “renegotiation” of the UK’s relationship with the EU – rather that the legal competence of the Court of Justice has been less the subject of recent attack than that of the European Court of Human Rights, despite its greater coercive influence).
All things told this is a slightly long-winded way of saying three things: (i) that the so-called “supremacy” of the UK Supreme Court over questions of rights is a straw figure set up to demarcate a legal non-problem as a political battle-ground and (ii) that the establishment of a legally “supreme” UK Supreme Court would be every bit as constitutionally problematic as the apparent problem to which it is the mooted solution and (iii) that attempting to explain institutional relationships in the language of legal supremacy increasing offers little other than incoherence.
Roger Masterman is a Professor of Law at Durham University.
Suggested citation: R. Masterman, ‘ A Tale of Competing Supremacies’ UK Const. L. Blog (30th September 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)