Tonight, in the Old Hall, Lincoln’s Inn, Judge Robert Spano will deliver the inaugural Bonavero Institute Human Rights Lecture entitled “The Democratic Virtues of Human Rights Law” in which he responds to Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures on the BBC last year. Jonathon Sumption will be there himself to respond to Robert Spano’s observations. The event, which is moderated by Helen Mountfield QC, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, will be recorded and filmed, and the director of the Bonavero Institute Catherine O’Regan (whom I interviewed in Episode 97 on Law Pod UK has kindly given permission for the audio recording to be republished on Law Pod UK in due course.
So, here is Robert Spano in his own words.
At the outset let me say this, I bring an external perspective, I will not be commenting on domestic political issues or developments in the British legal system. For that I am not equipped. Rather, I will begin by focussing in general on Lord Sumption’s views on the expanding role of law at the expense of politics before engaging with his third lecture, entitled ‘Human Rights and Wrongs’, and his criticism of the European Court of Human Rights. I proceed in this manner as it is difficult to disentangle the third lecture from Lord Sumption’s overall thesis. The five lectures must in other words fairly be read as a whole. When referring to his lectures, I will use the language Lord Sumption deploys in his published volume entitled Trials of the State – Law and the Decline of Politics (Profile Books, London (2019). In my intervention, I offer my personal views which should not be ascribed to the Court on which I serve.
This post, along with those before it, summarises some of the main points of interest arising from the ALBA Conference 2019.
‘Reith Lecture (Judicial Power) Response’ – Chair: Mrs. Justice Thornton; Speakers: Lord Dyson, Sir Stephen Laws, Prof Vernon Bogdanor, Prof Meg Russell, Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC
A prestigious panel offered its response to Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, followed by a reply from Lord Sumption himself.
In his lectures for the BBC, Lord Sumption argued that judges have excessively increased their power and invaded into the political sphere. The Human Rights Act 1998 and Judicial Review attracted particular criticism.
Lord Sumption’s original lectures are available from the BBC here. A recording of the full discussion is available on LawPod here, so this post draws out some of the key points.
Lady Hale has thrown her wig into the debate on whether the law, represented by the courts, is gaining power while politics in Parliament is losing it. She is not the first to critique Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, as they were covered at ALBA’s Annual Conference too (see Law Pod UK episodes 88, 89, and 91).
Or “Human Rights and Wrongs”, as Jonathan Sumption’s third lecture is called, in his series on Law’s Expanding Empire, delivered in Edinburgh and broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service.
Human rights are where law and politics meet. It can be an unfriendly meeting…”
Following these strong words, Lord Sumption briskly debunks the ideas of “natural” or “inalienable” human rights, in favour since Blackstone’s time. In principle, there is nothing so fundamental about certain rights that they cannot be overturned by democratic election. The idea of these inalienable human rights was perfectly straightforward in a world where rights were part of God’s law, or in communist societies where these rights were ordained by the ruling party. But in a secular democracy, Sumption asks, what is it that makes rights legitimate? Of course there are rights without which a community cannot function, like the right to be free of force, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections. Any further rights should be conferred by collective choice, and not because because they are thought to be inherent in our humanity, or derived from some higher law. Instead of the mystics and the totalitarians, he invites us instead to consider the 18th century enlightenment philosopher David Hume.
He rejected the whole concept of natural law … You cannot derive moral principles from abstract reasoning or empirical observation. They derive their legitimacy from collective moral sentiment.
Rights [continues Sumption] do not exist in a vacuum, They are the creation of law, which is a product of social organisation, and which is therefore necessarily a product of political choice.
Sir Stephen Sedley, until last year of the Court of Appeal, has launched a stinging rebuttal to the speech of Lord Sumption (Jonathan Sumption QC as was) in which the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice rebuked the judiciary for failing to stay out of the political arena.
This blog covered Lord Sumption’s speech here. Sir Stephen’s response in the London Review of Books takes issue with Lord Sumption’s assertion of excessive judicial interference in political matters, with the words:
there is a repeated insinuation that judicial interference in the political process regularly occurs: ‘The judicial resolution of inherently political issues is difficult to defend.’ It is not only difficult to defend; it does not happen.
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.