Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘sovereignty of Parliament

A big day in the Supreme Court

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Major cases raising fundamental constitutional issues are rare, which is why 24 Sept 2019 is a significant day. The supreme court ruled that the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament for 5 weeks was unlawful.

For the Prime Minister, it was argued, in essence, that the prorogation of Parliament is an act which falls within the scope of the Prerogative (acts formerly taken by the monarch in person, now taken by Ministers). As an essentially political decision, it should not be capable of review by a court – in the technical language it was not ‘justiciable’.

The Supreme Court – sitting with 11 justices – ruled unanimously that it was possible for the courts to judicially review the exercise of prerogative power – to determine whether such exercise fell within the accepted boundaries for the use of such powers. In short, the review of the power to prorogue was a justiciable matter.

That alone did not mean that the Government had acted unlawfully. Prorogation is an important part of the Parliamentary calendar.  It brings one Parliamentary session to a close. Ministers then prepare a Queen’s Speech which sets out the Government’s legislative priorities for the coming 12 months. Members of the Supreme Court accepted that a prorogation for a short period was necessary, even though Parliament could not function during that period.

However, the justices accepted evidence (including evidence from the former Prime Minister Sir John Major) that in recent years prorogations tended to be for between 4 and 6 days.  That was the average amount of time needed to sort out the Queen’s Speech.

The key point about a prorogation is that it brings all the work that can be carried on in Parliament to a complete standstill. No Committees can work, no Parliamentary Questions can be answered. Prorogation is distinct from recess when Parliament does not sit (e.g. in holiday periods|) but other Parliamentary business does continue.

Thus the issue in the present case was whether a 5-week prorogation was appropriate.
On this the justices were unanimous. They held unequivocally that such a long prorogation prevented Parliament from exercising its constitutional function of holding the Government to account.
The fallout from this decision is far from clear.
The Speaker of the House of Commons has announced that Parliamentary business will resume on Wednesday 25 September 2019. Will the Government take any steps to counter this decision?
One effect of prorogation is that Bills going through Parliament at the time of prorogation fall, and have to be reintroduced or carried over into the following session. (Where there is a general election, ‘carry-over’ is not possible.) What will happen in this instance?
Looking to the longer term, was one of the problems here that we do not have a written constitution in the United Kingdom that might have clarified in a basic law the process for prorogation? There are certainly some influential voices being heard that the time is approaching when we should adopt a written constitution.
All the written submissions made to the Supreme Court have been published on-line – as have all the hearings in the Court. This case will be studied by lawyers and politicians for years to come, and will divide opinion.
You can find all the material relating to the case at
https://www.supremecourt.uk/watch/prorogation/judgment.html,
https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2019-0192.html
https://www.supremecourt.uk/brexit/written-case-submissions.html
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Determining the limits of Executive Power: the Miller case

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There is no doubt that 24 January 2017 was a big day for the Supreme Court. That was the date on which 11 Justices handed down their decision in R (on the application of Miller and another)  v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5.
At issue was a fundamental constitutional question: could the decision of the UK to exit the European Union be implemented by the Government itself exercising executive power deriving from the Royal Prerogative, or did the process have to be authorised by Parliament passing a Bill which would give the Government the power to start the exit process.
The Government argued – in outline – that the power of the UK Government to enter into international treaty obligations is something that is exercised by exercise of prerogative powers. Thus, equally the Government argued – the power to disengage from treaty obligations could be done by exercise of those same prerogative powers.
Those who challenged the Government’s position argued that because accessing the EU had been accompanied by the enactment of the European Communities Act 1972, (which gave domestic effect to the UK’s obligations under the then existing EU Treaties, together with subsequent statutes, which gave effect to and related to later EU Treaties, and the European Union Referendum Act 2015) the Act of 1972 had created legal rights and obligations in our domestic law. Owing to the well-established rule that prerogative powers may not extend to acts which result in a change to UK domestic law, and withdrawal from the EU Treaties would change domestic law, the Government cannot serve a Notice unless first authorised to do so by an Act of Parliament.
By a majority of 8 – 3, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court that the process of starting Brexit could not be started by the exercise of the prerogative, but must be authorised by an Act of Parliament.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the 2016 referendum was an event of great political significance. However, its legal significance had to determined by what Parliament included in the statute authorising it, and that statute simply provided for the referendum to be held without specifying the consequences.
The change in the law required to implement the referendum’s outcome must be made in the only way permitted by the UK constitution, namely by legislation.
There has been a great deal of comment – much of it vitriolic and ill-informed – on the decisions of the courts. Those who argued in favour of the Government appeared to have forgotten some basic constitutional principles.
  • The Sovereignty of Parliament means that Parliament ( not the Executive) has the power to make and unmake laws (indeed that was a key argument of the case for Brexit – that the UK had ceded too much law making power from the UK Parliament to the EU).
  • The Separation of Powers means that there are checks and balances in our constitutional settlement, which implies that the judiciary must have the independence to reach decisions that the Government of the day may not like.

It can be argued that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor was too slow to acknowledge her obligations under section 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary – certainly in the immediate aftermath of the initial High Court decision in which considerable abuse was heaped upon the judges in the Press. Those who accused the judges of ‘being out of touch’ showed that they had no understanding of what the role of the judges is and should be in a parliamentary democracy.

Of course, those in power who find that they are prevented from doing what they would like may be expected to rail against those who have put barriers in their way – recent events in the USA bear witness to this proposition. But it should be remembered that without checks and balances, government leaders may well be tempted to take more and more power to themselves, with potentially extremely serious consequences for the people they seek to govern.

One further question that this case provokes is whether the current mix of constitutional principle – the precise limits of which are unclear – and law is the mot appropriate basis on which the Constitution of the UK should be founded. Is one implication of the Miller case that the time has now come for the UK to adopt a written constitution?

Written by lwtmp

February 27, 2017 at 10:08 am