In the case of Buick, the Northern Ireland High Court explored whether government departments can continue to operate as normal in the absence of ministers due to the collapse of the devolved administration in Belfast. It reached a striking conclusion which, if upheld on appeal, would have significant constitutional and practical implications. It was mistaken.
The United Kingdom is currently engaged in an experiment in political anarchism. For over a year, it has been exploring what happens when one part of the country, in this case Northern Ireland, is required to carry on without an elected government.
The experiment arose inadvertently, and on the surface very little has changed. Belfast 2018 is not the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Barcelona 1936, nor has it suddenly lapsed into a Hobbesian state of nature. But the very reason why hardly anything appears to be different – the continuity that is provided by the de facto technocratic government of the Northern Ireland Civil Service – gives rise to constitutional questions of real importance. The most fundamental question is this: can day-to-day government be carried on by civil servants without the need for direction or control by politicians; if so, subject to what conditions and within what parameters?
It was only a matter of time before this question fell to be considered in a court of law. And it has been, in the recent case of Buick  NIQB 43, in which the High Court was asked to determine whether Northern Ireland’s ten government departments are able to carry on without ministers in charge. It came to a surprising and unintentionally radical conclusion.
In R (Black) v Secretary of State for Justice, the Supreme Court was required to consider when Acts of Parliament are binding on the Crown. It found that the existing law was inconsistent and unsatisfactory. It then made things worse.
The UK Supreme Court’s year in 2017 was framed by two constitutional cases rooted in the medieval history of the British monarchy.
At the beginning of the year, in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, the court was concerned with what remains, in the early Twenty-First Century, of the scope of the royal prerogative. And at the year’s end, in R (Black) v Secretary of State for Justice, it had to consider the circumstances in which a contemporary Act of Parliament is binding on the Crown.
The first of these cases, which was related to the legal mechanism for delivering Brexit, achieved wide publicity. The second did not. But the judgment in Black is revealing as to the state of the UK constitution as it enters 2018, and of practical application in a wide range of cases. It tells us something about why the Crown still matters in UK law.
Continue reading Why the Crown (sometimes) still matters
As the Article 50 litigation reached the Supreme Court in early December, sections of the media were already sharpening their knives in preparation for the likely failure of the government’s appeal.
The target of this sharpening was the judiciary. The Daily Mail, for example, portrayed the Supreme Court Justices as ‘eleven unaccountable individuals‘. The paper published a short biography of each judge, ranking them on a scale of one to five for ‘Europhilia’, by which it meant their degree of perceived bias in favour of the respondents’ case.
The explanations for these rankings were frequently risible. Lord Carnwath is apparently a five-star Europhile; the clinching factor, if one were needed, his reputation as an ‘acclaimed viola player and lover of European culture‘. Lord Sumption, on the other hand, is a ‘Eurosceptic‘ because he was once mildly critical of the European Court of Human Rights, an institution which has nothing to do with the European Union. (That he is also a French speaking historian of the Hundred Years War, and owner of a – very lovely – château in Berbiguières in the Dordogne, passed curiously unremarked.)
However, to observe the absurdities of this kind of journalism is not only far too easy but also entirely beside the point. What matters is its mere existence, demonstrating as it does that elements of the media are seeking to recruit the judiciary as combatants in the socio-cultural war which is rapidly becoming the dominant theme of British politics.
For anyone interested in judicial independence and the rule of law, this is an unwelcome turn of events.
Continue reading The Media Coverage of the Article 50 Litigation
The Court of Appeal judgment in R (National Aids Trust) v NHS England is concerned with the allocation of responsibility for funding certain types of HIV treatment on the NHS.
At its narrowest, the case addresses the specific (though important) question of whether the power to fund prophylactic medicine for HIV lies with local authorities or with the NHS Commissioning Board (NHS England).
More generally, it serves as an unflattering critique of the legislation which underpins the allocation of roles and responsibilities within the health service.
And, at its widest, it adds usefully to the case law on how to understand the vires of a public authority when it lies within a badly-drafted, and hard to interpret, statutory regime.
Continue reading National Aids Trust v NHS England – Public Health and the Interpretation of Statute
The Divisional Court has today (3 November 2016) determined that the decision to issue the Article 50 notice that will trigger Brexit must be made by Parliament and not the government – R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU.
Before saying anything else, there are three initial observations that should be made about this.
The first is that it is just the outcome of a preliminary skirmish. The decisive legal battle will be fought in the Supreme Court next month. The government has already announced its intention to appeal the case, and there is no question that it will get permission to do so. In spite of the significant media interest in today’s judgment, nothing has been finally determined.
The second thing is that the judgment is, nonetheless, hugely important. The Divisional Court was as strongly constituted as it could have been – the Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls, and Lord Justice Sales. In a lucid and robust decision, the judges were unanimous and expressed no reservations about their conclusion or the reasoning that led them to it. Their judgment effectively changes the terms of the debate about when and how Brexit will happen. It determines the context in which the Supreme Court case will be heard.
The third point is that the judgment should come as no surprise. A number of lawyers who were willing to express a clear opinion (myself included) thought that the claimants in Miller had much the better of the legal argument, for the reasons I set out in an earlier post ‘Why the UK Parliament Still Needs to Vote for (or against) Brexit‘. Naturally this was not a unanimous view, and the Supreme Court could yet go the other way. But the arguments against the government are very powerful, as the judgment in Miller fully demonstrates.
Subject to these observations, what did the Court decide, and what does it mean?
Continue reading A Bad Day for a Hard Brexit – the Meaning and Effect of the Article 50 Judgment
Why does a regulator impose a financial penalty on a regulated body? To punish it? To discourage any repetition of the offending conduct? To deter others from doing the same thing?
The answer, clearly, is all of the above. However, two fines imposed by different regulators on consecutive days in October 2016 tell contrasting stories.
In one case, Ofcom fined Vodafone £4.6 million for failings related to its customer account and complaints handling systems. This is the largest fine it has ever imposed on a telecoms operator, and follows a recent pattern of sectoral regulators handing out record penalties. Some regulators may well be over-using their fining powers (a point to which I will return in a later post), but no-one can say that they are not treating them as a serious part of the regulatory toolkit. Even for a company as large as Vodafone, a fine of £4.6 million, straight off the bottom line, does not pass unnoticed.
By contrast, on the previous day, the UK Electoral Commission, in what, for it, was also the imposition of a record financial penalty, fined the Labour Party the somewhat less substantial sum of £20,000.
Why the disparity, and what does it tell us?
Continue reading What the Ed Stone Tells Us about the Regulation of Political Parties
If a public body adopts a policy about how it will exercise one of its functions, it must follow it.
This principle has been developed over the last 15 years in a series of cases brought against the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Initially it was regarded as an outworking of the doctrine of legitimate expectation (Saadi at ). More recently it has been treated as a freestanding ground of judicial review which is ‘a requirement of good administration‘ (Nadarajah at ) and ‘a basic public law right‘ (Lumba at ).
The full extent to which the duty has now been cut loose from its traditional moorings in legitimate expectation became evident last year in the Supreme Court case of Mandalia. In that case the claimant successfully relied on the Home Office’s failure to follow an internal policy – a ‘process instruction’ to civil servants – of which he neither had, nor could have had, any knowledge at the time when it should have been applied. Following Mandalia, even an unpublished policy is now binding.
The duty is qualified by another basic public law principle, that policies should not fetter discretion. If the circumstances of an individual case provide a ‘good reason‘ for doing so (Lumba at ) a public body may, and sometimes must, depart from its own policy.
Subject to this qualification, the requirement to follow existing policies has developed into an important obligation on public bodies. However, two recent cases expose some of the limits of reliance on policies as a ground of public law challenge.
Continue reading The Duty to Follow Policies (and its Limits)
Edmund Burke, on being elected MP for Bristol, famously told his new constituents that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment’. This was his clever way of saying that he was going to make up his own mind about how to vote in the House of Commons, and not feel bound to do whatever the people of Bristol wanted.
The speech, made in 1774, has stood the test of time. It is the classic statement of an MP’s role in a representative democracy. And its sentiments are embodied in constitutional law – MPs have a duty to make up their own minds, even if they were given a clear message by the electorate in a referendum (see Moohan v Lord Advocate at ).
A lot of people who do not much like the idea of Brexit are placing a great deal of weight on this. They think that the EU referendum is not the end of the matter, that MPs still have to vote on whether the UK should leave the European Union, and that Parliament is in no way bound by the wishes of the majority as expressed in the referendum result.
This has led to the first piece of post-referendum litigation. But how far is it accurate?
Continue reading The Article 50 Litigation – Why the UK Parliament Still Needs to Vote for (or against) Brexit
Referendums present us with apparently simple choices, but the binary nature of the questions they ask masks layers of complexity. Their outcomes are shaped by votes cast with a wide range of motivations, many unrelated to the issue on the ballot paper. They attract protest voting. And they are incapable of answering the follow-on questions to which their results inevitably give rise.
The EU referendum was no exception to these rules. Unpicking the strands which account for the Brexit vote will take time and careful analysis. When the history is written, it will be shown to have multiple and complex causes.
However, this complexity should not be an excuse for ignoring what is already obvious and requires no further study. Some things really are quite simple. The pattern of voting tells its own clear story.
This is that while the referendum question was about the EU, the result reveals less about Europe than it does about the nature of the constitutional arrangements within the UK itself. These, especially in England, are fundamentally unfit for purpose.
The outcome of the referendum was forged not in Brussels, but in London.
Continue reading London, the Centralisation of Power, and the Causes of Brexit
A single interesting point of law emerges from the High Court judgment in South Staffordshire & Shropshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust v St George’s Hospital Managers, summarised by the judge, Mr Justice Cranston, as concerning ‘the capacity of a body to seek judicial review of a decision which it could have made itself‘.
Continue reading Can a Public Body Challenge its own Delegate?