Sir John Laws and The Constitutional Balance

The Constitutional Balance, a new work by the former judge John Laws, was published posthumously in January. Here, David Feldman discusses the key themes of the book, and pays tribute to the author, a long-serving judge, who served as a Lord Justice of Appeal and was one of the most well-respected public law judges of the last 50 years.

The late Sir John Laws stood out as one of the greatest English public law judges of the last 50 years. Throughout his distinguished and creative career as Treasury Devil – First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law), responsible for advising and representing the government in a large range of public law matters – and judge, he was uniquely willing to argue publicly for and apply in his judgments a systematic philosophy of the liberal, democratic state and of the respective roles within it of the people, their representatives, the government and the judiciary. After retiring from the Bench he spent the 2016-17 academic year as A. L. Goodhart Visiting Professor of Legal Science at Cambridge. There he gave a course of 16 lectures, primarily for final-year undergraduates, entitled ‘Judicial Review and the Constitution’. In them he distilled his latest thinking on matters to which, as writer and judge, he had made distinctive contributions to our public law. These included parliamentary sovereignty and the interpretation of statutes, the importance of the common law in constitutional development, the place of human rights in the constitution, the role of judicial review, how government and judiciary should understand and give appropriate respect to each other’s different, equally legitimate roles in the governance of the country, and the proper relationship between religion and the law.

Sir John used his lectures as the basis for a book, The Constitutional Balance. Unfortunately his zest for life was severely dented by the death in 2017 of Sophie, his wife, and his physical health deteriorated. Nevertheless, greatly helped by Nigel Pleming QC, his long-standing colleague and friend, Sir John finished the text before he, too, died in 2020.

At the heart of the book lies a connection between his view of the constitution and his understanding of the human condition. Ideally, he thought, people are rational, enjoy free will (and so are responsible for their actions), are social, communing with others of their kind (pages 6-7) and have to find ways to coexist fairly with them. These characteristics demand freedom of thought and expression, and rigorous rejection of ideology (‘a preconception or preconceptions, an assumption or assumptions, not tested by reason, by argument, by practice or by results; an a priori belief, given or imposed in advance, assumed to be true’: page 2) that forecloses debate about the good and the bad, and reliance on reason and fair process to conduct and resolve disagreement (pages. 2-6 and 134-138). Sir John saw reason, fairness and a presumption in favour of liberty as key values of the common law, that unique system whereby principles and precedents are continuously tested through rigorous argument and gradually developed over centuries, and of a democratic constitution respecting the rule of law.

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Parliaments and the pandemic

Earlier this year, the Study of Parliament Group published a collection of 25 essays on how parliaments across the UK and further afield have responded to the pandemic. They consider not only aspects of the response in the two Houses at Westminster, but also in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Crown Dependencies, New Zealand and other international comparisons, including case studies of the Maldives and Bahrain. Paul Evans summarises some of the themes here.

Executive assertion and parliamentary compliance

As the full scale of the threat posed by COVID-19 began to be recognised, governments wanted to take powers and parliaments were for the most part initially willing to cede them, with little protest when the normal procedures were abrogated. In most cases the legislatures, initially at least, willingly handed over very extensive powers to their governments to make emergency legislation and this was generally done with unusual expedition and, as a result, scant scrutiny.

The problem was perhaps most acute in the area of delegated legislation, resulting in government more or less by decree, as Tom Hickman sets out in his contribution to the volume. At the best of times, the scrutiny of this at Westminster – particularly in the Commons – is open to, and regularly receives, criticism. When actions were first taken to control the pandemic, it was widely suspected that the UK government was deliberately reducing the level of potential parliamentary scrutiny. This suspicion applied to a lesser extent to other executives, which introduced a large number of instruments which took effect in advance of being approved by the legislature.

However, as all the examples, domestic and international, demonstrate, there is an eternal conflict in the procedures underpinning democratic systems between a diversity of voices and a unity of purpose, between efficiency and accountability, between deliberation and decisiveness, and between consent and control. The pandemic, like any national emergency tends to, dramatically highlighted these tensions. In one essay in the volume, Paul Seaward notes that the extent of the use of emergency powers seen in the UK parliament in 2020 is unprecedented in peacetime .

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Wales has put effective legislation in place to make the Senedd polls COVID-safe

For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.

To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.

The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?

The evidence from around the world

As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.

Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life. 

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