On 1 October 2020, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, gave a speech at Temple Church to mark the opening of the legal year. He praised the “enduring success” of our legal system, our “healthy democracy”, and the “commitment to the Rule of Law” which steered the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Lord Chancellor delivered his speech two days after the controversial Internal Market Bill cleared its final hurdle in the House of Commons with ease, by 340 votes to 256. Earlier in September, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the House of Commons that the government’s plans would “break international law in a very specific and limited way.” On September 29, the Lord Chancellor voted against a proposed amendment to the Bill “requiring Ministers to respect the rule of law and uphold the independence of the Courts.” He was joined in doing so by the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, and the Solicitor General, Michael Ellis.
In the past week, Covid-19 has once again dominated the news, effectively occluding all other topics. Given that Monday evening saw leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Michel Barnier, Donald Trump and Sir Keir Starmer expressing their hopes for Boris Johnson’s swift recovery after his sudden removal to intensive care, this dominance does not seem disproportionate.
In his lecture to the Administrative Law Bar Association earlier this month, Lord Sumption surveys the concept of “anxious scrutiny” – a judicial method which he characterises as a forerunner to the principle of proportionality. The term was actually coined by Lord Bridge in Bugdaycay (1986), and was meant to apply where the rights engaged in a case were sufficiently fundamental, and stretched the traditional “Wednesbury” test to public authority decisions or actions which were not, on the face of it, irrational. (The citation given in the PDF of the speech incidentally is incorrect). The same way of thinking had been arrived at in the US courts a few years earlier, with their “hard look” doctrine, but to Lord Sumption there was something peculiarly English about the “crab-like” way in which our courts approached and eventually acknowledged this doctrine, hitherto alien to the judicial toolbox.
But if we apply anxious scrutiny to the doctrine itself, Sumption suggests, it raises more questions than it answers. Continue reading →
The consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s administration have been long lasting. In many areas of national life Thatcher took the British Bulldog by the scruff of the neck and house-trained it. In the context of the constitution her impact was no less significant.
But Lady Thatcher did not set out to reform the constitution. Although the 1979 Conservative Manifesto raised the possibility of a Bill of Rights nothing came of this proposal during her administration. In reality Margaret Thatcher was a traditional Conservative who believed in a strong state and had an aversion to any constitutional reform that might limit it. Yet her administration has left long lasting changes to the law and constitution. In fact there are too many to comfortably write about in a quick blog though a number of developments are of particular interest.
Print Media South Africa v Minister of Home Affairs ( ZACC 22) – read judgment.
In a “momentous” ruling on freedom of speech, the Constitutional Court has struck down a legislative provision on prior restraint, “based on vague and overly broad criteria”, as offensive to the right to freedom of expression.
As the attorney for the amicus curiae Dario Milo explains in the Weekly Mail and Guardian (reposted on Inforrm), the court went even further than the relief contended for by the applicants, by striking down the entire provision as unconstitutional, rather than allowing certain criteria to be clarified in accordance with the Bill of Rights.
The British Academy have today published a very interesting new report by Colm O’Cinneide considering the workings of the UK human rights law, the relationship between the ECHR, UK courts and the Parliament and the potential effect of a bill of rights.
The report (full report / executive summary) had a prestigious steering committee, including Professor Vernon Bognodor, who knows a bit about the British constitution, and Professor Conor Gearty. The conclusions represent – at least in my experience – the mainstream view amongst legal academics, lawyers and indeed judges on the human rights system. In summary, and with apologies if this is an over-simplification of the report’s detailed findings:
Why should we bother with the European Convention on Human Rights? Many of those that would never contemplate leaving the ECHR still question whether we should abide by controversial decisions such as those on prisoners’ voting rights or deportation. UCL’s Professor Richard Bellamy attempted to answer this question at the Statute Law Society’s talk on Monday evening. He said that the UK should abide by the ECHR, which gains its legitimacy by being the best way for democratic states regulate their relationships and protect their citizens’ rights.
The talk was entitled ‘The Democratic Legitimacy of International Human Rights Conventions’ (IHRCs). Although perhaps not in such terms, this is a topic that exercises many every week: from those questioning who exactly decides which human rights are the ones that count, to those asking why ‘unelected judges’ in Europe can tell a democracy how to govern itself. Professor Bellamy started by noting that mature democracies are generally less keen on IHRCs; at the post-war inception of the ECHR, he said it was Germany and Italy showing most enthusiasm. Even now, many ‘democratising’ countries show less opposition to Europe’s human rights structures.
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