The HS2 case is widely recognised as the first important Constitutional case of the year. Its importance for parliamentary sovereignty and the relationship between EU law and national law appears to turn on four paragraphs: paragraph 79 of Lord Reed’s judgment and paragraphs 206 to 208 of the judgment of Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance. Mark Elliott states that these paragraphs suggest that, not only does the UK have a separate category of ‘constitutional statutes’ but that some constitutional statutes are more constitutional than others. Adam Tomkins comments that the case also demonstrates the dangers that can arise when the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) interprets EU directives in a purposive or teleological manner, perhaps taking these provisions beyond what the Member States, represented by the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission intended. He welcomes the approach of the Supreme Court which questions the interpretation of the CJEU. I want to focus on another question – is HS2 best understood as the UK’s conclusive acceptance of constitutional pluralism? In doing so, I hope to demonstrate how this may alleviate the confusion that may be caused by multi-layers of constitutional statutes, as well as how this may help the UK to respond when it believes that the CJEU may have gone too far.
Constitutional pluralism is a much-used term. It can be hard to define, particularly when separating it from the related issue of legal constitutionalism. It can also be hard to separate out when the term is used to describe inter-institutional relationships and when it is used to prescribe how institutions should relate to one another. For the purpose of this brief response, constitutional pluralism is defined as occurring when two or more institutions assert the authority to definitely resolve a particular issue, but where neither institution can effectively ‘make good’ on its assertion of authority.
Applied to the European Union, both the CJEU and national courts assert their claim to be the institution that definitively determines the nature of the relationship between national law and EU law. However, neither can fully make good on this claim. The CJEU does not stand in a hierarchical relationship to the national courts. As such, it cannot, as a matter of law, force the national courts to comply with its judgments. However, national courts are also not completely free of influence from the CJEU. They play a major role in implementing EU law, but have no power to declare EU law to be invalid and, for the highest level of court capable of adjudicating on a particular issue, have an, albeit limited, obligation to refer the case to the CJEU. Whilst the CJEU determines EU law, the national courts determine how this is applied to the facts.
Constitutional pluralism can also be applied to the UK. Whilst Parliament enacts legislation, courts determine the principles by which this legislation will be interpreted. Courts control executive actions, either according to common law principles or statutory provisions, and the legislature can enact measures to override common law principles or to oust the jurisdiction of the courts. Both Parliament and the courts have a role to play in determining how legislation is recognised, and in assessing what is meant by ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ when expressed as a legal principle. Whilst most English courts are courts of inherent jurisdiction, Parliament could still place judicial power on a statutory basis, determining its confines.
HS2 and the EU
It is easy to find references to a potential acceptance of constitutional pluralism in the, probably already seminal paragraphs of Lord Reed and of Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance. All argue that the relationship between EU law and national law is a matter for UK constitutional law, to be determined by the UK courts. This is true for conflicts between EU law and UK statutes and for conflicts between EU law and UK constitutional principles. Lord Reed states that the issue as to whether a Directive should override national law ‘cannot be resolved simply by applying the doctrine developed by the Court of Justice of the supremacy of EU law, since the application of that doctrine in our law itself depends upon the 1972 Act’ . Further, ‘[i]f there is a conflict between a constitutional principle … and EU law, that conflict has to be resolved by our courts as an issue arising under the constitutional law of the United Kingdom.’  For Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance ‘[u]nder the European Communities Act 1972, United Kingdom courts have also acknowledged that European law requires them to treat domestic statutes, whether passed before or after the 1972 Act, as invalid if and to the extent that they cannot be interpreted consistently with European law’ . As regards a potential conflict between EU law and national constitutional principles, ‘[i]t is, putting the point at its lowest, certainly arguable (and it is for United Kingdom law and courts to determine) that there may be fundamental principles, whether contained in other constitutional instruments or recognised at common law, of which Parliament when it enacted the European Communities Act 1972 did not either contemplate or authorise the abrogation’ .
Constitutional pluralism is also illustrated in the way in which all of the members of the Supreme Court interpret the requirements of the Directive. There is recognition of potential problems with its interpretation. This is analysed not just from a perspective of national constitutional principles. The Supreme Court looks at the separation of powers, a constitutional tradition shared by the Member States. EU scholars who advocate constitutional pluralism draw on its ability to encourage judicial dialogue and to act as a mutual check. In particular, national courts can point out when decisions of the CJEU may challenge national constitutional principles – and vice versa – helping to alleviate concerns that arise when the CJEU has been overly teleological or purposive in its interpretation of EU law. Constitutional pluralism at the EU level does not just involve the courts. National courts look to national law – including legislation. Member State governments can contribute third-party interventions to the CJEU.
Constitutional pluralism in the UK
Lord Reed, Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance all refer to constitutional principles. For Lord Reed, article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 ‘embodies’ a constitutional principle. If a statutory principle can embody a constitutional principle, then this would appear to suggest that this constitutional principle exists independent of its embodiment. It also raises questions as to whether constitutional principles can also be embodied in the common law. Lord Neuberger and Lord Mance also refer to fundamental principles ‘enshrined’ in the Bill of Rights. In addition, ‘[t]he common law itself also recognises certain principles as fundamental to the rule of law’ . They also refer to ‘constitutional statutes’ and ‘constitutional instruments’, both of which appear to be different from ‘ordinary statutes’ and potentially different from one another.
To delineate between different levels of statutes in this manner adds to the confusion already created by the classification of some statutes as ‘constitutional’. Academic debate continues as to what, if anything, is meant by a ‘constitutional statute’ and recent decisions of the Supreme Court appeared to downplay their importance. Rather than adding to the confusion, it may be better to recognise that the English law recognises constitutional principles which can be embodied in statutes – whether classified as ‘constitutional statutes’ or ‘constitutional instruments’, embodied in the common law, or which can act as background principles used when interpreting the common law, actions of the administration and legislation.
To read the decision in this manner is to recognise another example of constitutional pluralism. Parliament enacts the law. Courts interpret its provisions. Parliament can enact legislation embodying constitutional principles. Courts can embody constitutional principles through developing the common law. Courts may also refer to constitutional principles when interpreting executive acts and legislation. In doing so, both the courts and Parliament can check on the potential excesses of the other in a manner similar to the Member States and the CJEU. This is not to argue anything novel – if anything it is to state the obvious. What needs to change is our analysis of constitutional decisions according to a bifurcation between parliamentary and judicial sovereignty and accept that both may assert sovereignty, but neither really is supreme.
Alison Young is a Fellow and Tutor in law at Hertford College, University of Oxford.
Suggested citation: A. Young, ‘Wilkommen zum Constitutional Pluralism’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (17th February 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)