Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘Chapter 2’ Category

Constitutional conventions

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Constitutional conventions are an important features of the UK constitutional settlement. As the conventions are not exactly rules in the normal sense, it can on occasion be hard to know what they are and when they apply. In 2011, the then Coalition Government published a statement of Constitutional Conventions that had been drafted by the then Secretary to the Cabinet Sir Gus O’Donnell. Although the work had been started at the request of the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP, it was thought to be particularly helpful to guide the Coalition Government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The book was published in October 2011.
Recent events in the House of Lords – where a draft Statutory Instrument (which was designed, as part of the Government’s Welfare Reform plan, to cut tax credits to those in work) were not approved by a majority of the Lords, despite being approved in the House of Commons – have thrown a new spotlight on these conventional rules. (They have also reopened the wider issue of the composition of the House of Lords and whether or not it should become an elected body.)
The specific issue – relating to the approval of the Statutory Instrument already approved in the House of Commons – is to be subject to a review led by Lord Strathclyde.
This incident emphasises the point that while the process of government usually ticks over in a fairly ordered way, the lack of detail written rules can on occasion lead to considerable controversy.

The Cabinet Manual setting out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-manual

Written by lwtmp

October 28, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Prisoners’ Voting Rights: the view of the European Court of Justice

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I have written before about the stand off between the UK Government and the European Court of Human Rights on the question of whether the UK’s policy of prohibiting any prisoner from voting is compatible with the right to vote set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. (See 5 December 2012, 17 Oct 2013 and 21 Aug 2014.)

Although the issue has been seen largely as a matter arising from the European Convention on Human Rights, the issue also raises a question of European Law – namely whether a total ban on voting infringes the rights of citizens to vote in elections for the European Parliament.

The question was raised in the UK in the Supreme Court in 2013 as one concerning the equal treatment as between EU citizens residing in Member States other than that of their nationality. However, that principle would not apply to UK Citizens being detained in UK prisons. In any event, the EU legal principle of non-discrimination would still not be engaged. Convicted prisoners serving their sentence are not in a comparable position to persons not in prison. Thus,  the Supreme Court held on that occasion that EU law did not apply.

The issue has come back to the European Court of Justice in a case involving France: Thierry Delvigne v Commune de Lesparre-Médoc and Préfet de la Gironde Case C-650/13. (October 2015) Here the ECJ held that a Member State can maintain an indefinite ban on voting in European Parliament elections for certain nationals of that State, although such a ban must, be proportionate. In the case, Delvigne was convicted in March 1988 of a serious crime and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 12 years. Under the (French) law in effect at the time, this resulted in a total loss of his civic right to vote. However, after release he could apply to have his right to vote reinstated. He did this in 2012, but his application was rejected.

Despite the fact that French electoral law was amended in 1994 to limit any voting ban to 10 years, the ECJ held that the original law was proportionate and would be upheld. This result was reached following analysis of  Articles 39 and 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

There seem to be clear implications in this judgement for the UK. On the one hand, for those sentenced to substantial prison sentences, the position under the old law in France is arguably harsher than the law in the UK, where rights to vote are restored when a prisoner’s sentence is served. On the other hand, the position relating to those sentenced for shorter terms in the UK is arguably harsher than the position in France.

Of course, the ECJ ruling applies only to the right to vote in European elections. The wider limitations on prisoners’ right to vote, and the long-standing divergence of view between the ECtHR and the UK Government on the legal position in the UK, remain.

For details of the ECJ judgement see http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=169189&pageIndex=0&doclang=EN&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=242509

Written by lwtmp

October 15, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The changing constitution – abolition of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform

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Just over a year ago, (October 2014) I published a blog item here on a consultation by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons in which it explored the arguments for and against the adoption of a Written Constitution. It followed that with a rather anodyne report, published before the dissolution of the Coalition Government, suggesting that more work should be done on this.
It also suggested that the Committee should be reconstituted after the outcome of the 2015 Election was known.
Despite the fact that there is considerable discussion about constitutional change, particularly issues – such as English Votes for English Laws – which came out of the Scottish Referendum, the Select Committee itself has not been reconstituted.

For the Select Committee’s Final Report on this subject go to http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/599/59902.htm
Under the title ‘Consultation on A new Magna Carta?’ it attaches, as an Annex, a draft accessible summary constitution, with options for reform, written by Professor Robert Blackburn of King’s College London. This is an interesting contribution to a much wider debate.
For more detailed discussion about constitutional developments you need to look at the work of the Constitution Unit, based in University College London. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/

Written by lwtmp

October 12, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Revolution in the Justice system?

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On 23 June 2015, the Lord Chancellor delivered a major speech on his vision for the development of the Justice system. Mr Gove is not shy of taking on existing established practices – witness his battles with the teachers when he was Secretary of State for Education under the Coalition Government.

In his speech, entitled What does a one nation justice policy look like? he argues that the justice system is in need of fundamental reform if is it to deliver access to justice to ordinary people.

A potentially very important difference between what he was trying to do in the world of education and what he now seeks to do to the justice system is that for the latter, much of the initiative for reform is coming from the judiciary itself. They see the need for better use of court facilities, fundamental investment in IT which would enable much legal work to be done without attendance at courts, support for new ideas – in particular in civil justice – endorsing proposals recently set out by Justice in its report Civil Justice in an Age of Austerity. (see this blog, entry for 5 May 2015)

First reactions to the Lord Chancellor’s speech can be heard in a special edition of the BBC programme Law in Action which was broadcast on the same day. The discussion – by Sir Stanley Burnton, Dame Hazel Genn and Keir Starmer – provides a useful basis for understanding what may start to unfold in the justice system over the next five years

What is absolutely certain is that anyone starting the study of law should be aware of what is in the pipeline – things are likely to change pretty quickly.

To read the speech go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-policy-look-like

To hear the Law in Action Broadcast go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zktnf#auto

The Centre for Justice Innovation, whose work is mentioned in the programme has a website at http://www.justiceinnovation.org/

Work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission: podcast with Nony Ardill

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the body given the statutory mandate to challenge discrimination, and to protect and promote human rights. As it states on its website:

“We live in a country with a long history of upholding people’s rights, valuing diversity and challenging intolerance. The EHRC seeks to maintain and strengthen this heritage while identifying and tackling areas where there is still unfair discrimination or where human rights are not being respected.”

To get a clearer idea about how the Commission goes about its work, I have been talking to Nony Ardill, a Senior Lawyer with the Commission. She provides a fascinating account of the ways in which the Commission works with other agencies to fulfill its (very challenging) mandate.

To hear the podcast, go to http://global.oup.com/uk/orc/law/els/partington14_15/student/podcasts/NonyArdill.mp3

To read more about the work of the Commission, go to http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/

Written by lwtmp

November 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Considering the case for a written constitution

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In July 2014, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons launched an inquiry into the question of whether there is a need for a new Magna Carta. The inquiry follows from research undertaken at King’s College London which lays out three different models – including one fully fleshed out, complete constitution – and sets out some of the arguments for and against codifying the constitution in this way. The following summary is from the Committee’s website.

Arguments for

The King’s research points to the fact that the UK has a “sprawling mass” of common law, Acts of Parliament, and European treaty obligations, and a number of important but uncertain and unwritten “conventions” that govern administration, but the full picture is unclear and uncertain to electors in our democracy. They point to concerns about an “elective dictatorship”, and argue that it has “become too easy for governments to implement political and constitutional reforms to suit their own political convenience”. A written constitution would entrench requirements for popular and parliamentary consent.  The present unwritten constitution is “an anachronism riddled with references to our ancient past, unsuited to the social and political democracy of the 21st century and future aspirations of its people. It fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people and discourages popular participation in the political process.”

Arguments against

Conversely, the case against a written constitution is that it is unnecessary, undesirable and un-British. The UK’s unwritten constitution is evolutionary and flexible in nature, enabling practical problems to be resolved as they arise and individual reforms made. The research points to concerns that a written constitution would create more litigation in the courts and politicise the judiciary, requiring them to pass judgement on the constitutionality of government legislation (which currently happens only in some contexts, such as compatibility with the Human Rights Act), when the final word on legal matters should lie with elected politicians in Parliament, not unelected judges. There is the simple argument that there are so many practical problems in preparing and enacting a written constitution, there is little point in even considering it. There is no real popular support or demand and, especially given the massive amount of time and destabilising effect such a reform would entail, it is a very low priority even for those who support the idea.

The Committee is currently taking evidence on the issue and will publish a report early in 2015.

For further detail go to http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/news/report-a-new-magna-carta/

Written by lwtmp

October 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

Where next for Human Rights?

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Much publicity has been given to the publication of proposals from the Conservative Party to, in some way, opt out of the European Convention, or more particularly judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.

I was unable to track the paper down through the Conservative Party website, but it can be accessed from the BBC News website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29466113.

The proposals are controversial and have already generated heated debate. A key issue, which has not had the air-time it deserves, is what message any such move by the UK Government would have on the other 46 states who are also members of the Council of Europe and who are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite the Government’s impatience with certain aspects of the way in which the European Convention impacts on the UK (such as the decision on prisoner’s voting rights, or the power of the judiciary to impose whole life prison sentences without possibility of review) there is a general public assumption that – on the whole – human rights are respected in the UK. But this cannot be said for many of the countries who have joined the Council of Europe.

If the UK Government is able to announce that it no longer wishes to accept rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, then it is not hard to imagine that many other countries – where human rights are less well protected – might want to make the same argument. This could lead to an unravelling of the standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights that could lead to significantly adverse consequences for the future development of human rights in Europe.

More broadly, if these proposals went ahead, they could undermine the ability of future UK Government’s to make the case for improvements in human rights standards, in other countries where they currently do not exist or are extremely weak.

I do not argue here that the application of the European Convention through the work of the European Court on Human Rights is perfect. Far from it: the decision taking process is sclerotic; the backlog of cases is a scandal. The UK Government has taken a lead in discussions on developing measures to ensure that the European Court works more efficiently.

And if, as the Conservative Party argues, the Court is suffering from ‘mission creep’ then to remain engaged with the Court and to argue that there has been mission creep seems to me a more positive way forward. (In the latest prisoners’ voting rights case, at least 2 judges expressed significant concerns about the way decisions of the Court had been going, which opens up the possibility that the Court might alter its approach. )

This should be an important issue for public debate. The problem is that so many people do not really understand what the Convention rights are nor how they are applied. The issues are treated inadequately in the news media. Thus there is often assumed to be a lack of common sense about the Convention and its application which is not justified.

Certainly it is an issue that will continue to attract attention over the next couple of years.

Written by lwtmp

October 4, 2014 at 5:13 pm