Remote sittings for Ireland’s parliament: questionable constitutional objections

david_kenny_02.jpg_resized.jpg (1)As a result of the temporary measures taken by the UK House of Commons, MPs as far away from London as Orkney have been able to contribute to parliamentary proceedings remotely. The same has not been true of Ireland, where legal objections have been raised. David Kenny argues that those objections can be easily overcome and that there is no good reason why Ireland’s elected representatives should not be able to attend the Oireachtas remotely. 

Ireland’s recent general election, as well as producing deep political uncertainty, has produced several fascinating and strange constitutional questions: what happens when a candidate dies (not, it turns out, what the law clearly required). Can the Seanad (Senate) legislate when no Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has been appointed to nominate 11 of its members? What are the limits of the accountability of acting ministers?

The strange circumstances of the pandemic have thrown up yet another constitutional issue, one which is arising around the world: where and how can the legislature sit? With social distancing in a parliamentary chamber or committee room difficult, this has a profound effect on how the legislature can function at a time where the agglomeration of executive power in response to the crisis requires acute parliamentary oversight. 

At present, despite emergency legislation giving sweeping powers to the executive to combat COVID-19, neither house of the Irish parliament is meeting in anything other than the most limited form. For limited purposes, such as attempting to nominate a Taoiseach, a very large space such as Dublin’s Convention Centre can be rented to allow socially distant attendance from all 160 members of the Dáil (the equivalent of the UK’s House of Commons). But this is not intended to be a regular arrangement, and is not planned for other parliamentary activities, such as committee meetings. There are limited sittings in the Dáil Chamber, with a select groups of members in attendance, and meetings of a special COVID-19 Committee in the chamber also. It would seem that virtual/remote meetings would be essential to allow sufficient parliamentary oversight in these circumstances. But constitutional objections to this have been raised. Continue reading

Politics, courts and the UK’s single market

image_preview.jpgBrexit is likely to pose numerous legal questions about how the various parts of the UK relate to each other once the UK leaves the EU. Deborah Mabbett argues that the recent Supreme Court decision on prorogation is therefore unlikely to be the last time the judiciary is called upon to decide a matter related to Brexit.

Even among those who welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision on the prorogation of parliament, there has been concern that it has entered into dangerous new territory. It might have been forced there by a Prime Minister who failed to observe convention, or by a parliament that resiled from its duty to remove a government which has no majority, but forced it was, and this is a source of concern and regret. Several commentators have argued that the decision paves the way for a nasty and unpredictable election structured around a populist opposition of courts and parliament versus ‘The People’, and indeed those who see Dominic Cummings as an evil genius fear that this was the intention of the prorogation in the first place.

For those seeking a calmer view, the Court is clear in its self-assessment that, far from entering new territory, it is firmly placed on ground it has held all along. It has upheld the rule of law, in the specific sense of imposing limitations on arbitrary authority. This is the daily bread and butter of administrative law, of which there is a great deal more than excitable commentators seem to realise. Below the public gaze, the courts have dug in their heels over countless daily exercises of executive power, including the mistreatment of immigrants, the removal of welfare rights and the denial of access to justice. True, the arbitrary power challenged in these cases is not exercised by the contemporary king—the Prime Minister—but by the agents and minions of the state. Escalating the level of scrutiny to the actions of high political figures makes the prorogation decision a matter of constitutional rather than administrative law, but law it is.

On what grounds can it be claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision is ‘political’? The domains of law and politics cannot be defined by their subject matter, which clearly overlap across great swathes of social issues. We must look instead for differences in method and modes of reasoning. The characteristic method of politics is the structured antagonism of government and opposition, organised around the general political orientations of left and right. The belief that the Court had made this kind of decision seems to be behind the claim of Toby Young and Douglas Carswell, among others, that the prorogation judgment calls for action to ferret out and expose the partisan leanings of the justices. Yet left and right partisanship was obviously beside the point in the decision. Continue reading

Unison v Lord Chancellor: the things that landmark constitutional cases are made of

On Wednesday the UK Supreme Court ruled court fees for claims before employment tribunals, introduced by the coalition government in 2013, to be illegal. Christina Lienen argues that this judgement is likely to join the ranks of landmark constitutional decisions, given its characterisation of the UK constitution as founded in common law and therefore in the hands of judges rather than politicians.  

On Wednesday, in a single majority judgement, the United Kingdom Supreme Court (‘UKSC’) declared the recently introduced court fees for claims before employment tribunals and employment appeal tribunal to be unlawful. In this post it is argued that Unison v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51 promises to join the ranks of constitutional landmark decisions owing to (i) the autochthonous choice of legal sources and particularly the reliance on common law constitutional rights, and (ii) the unequivocal commitment to the rule of law. Their significance is underpinned by the vigorous scrutiny with which the arguments on both sides were examined as well as by the quashing remedy given.

The facts and the law

The law in question is the Employment Tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Order 2013, SI 2013/1893 (‘the Fees Order’), adopted by the Lord Chancellor in the exercise of his statutory powers. Under the rules, a claim can cost a single claimant between £390 and £1600. In September 2014, Unison issued a claim for judicial review seeking to have the Fees Order quashed on the grounds of effectiveness and discrimination, mainly on the basis of European Union law, although partial reference was made to some domestic authorities and judgements by the European Court of Human Rights. The Supreme Court went down the common law route instead, asking whether the fee order was ‘unlawful under English law’. Lord Reed’s judgement is endorsed by all members of the panel, with Lady Hale writing a separate judgement on the issue of discrimination, which is not considered at great length in the majority judgement.

The autochthonous choice of legal sources and common law constitutional rights

The constitutional magic of the judgement happens in paragraphs 64 to 104. By saying that ‘the right of access to justice is not an idea recently imported from the continent of Europe, but has long been deeply embedded in our constitutional law’ [64], Unison echoes the jurisprudence on common law constitutional rights that was shaped powerfully by other UKSC judgements, including notably Osborn v Parole Board [2013] 61 UKSC, A v British Broadcasting Corporation [2014] UKSC 25, Kennedy v The Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20, and also Rhodes v OPO (by his litigation friend BHM) and another [2015] UKSC 32 and Beghal v Director of Public Prosecutions [2015] UKSC 49. Similar to those cases, Unison displays an emphasis on (a) the historical foundation of these rights by reference to Magna Carta [74], (b) intellectual authority by reference to Sir Coke’s seminal Institutes of the Laws of England, which address the right of access to the courts [75], and (c) case law from the first peak of common law constitutional rights in the 1980s and 1990s, prior to the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 [76-80]. Particular attention is paid to the Court of Appeal decision in R v Lord Chancellor, ex p Witham [1998] QB 575, which is used as precedent.

Importantly however, Unison goes further than these authorities. In contrast to Osborn, it not only puts the common law centre-stage by making it the starting point of the legal analysis but also implies, in the context of this right at least, the sufficiency of the common law [89]. Furthermore, in contrast to A v BBC, this judgement is more consistent as both the law and the application of the law to the facts is common law based rather than ECHR or EU law based, thereby mirroring the approach in Rhodes. Finally, citing R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p Leech [1994] QB 198 and R (Daly) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2001] UKHL 26, Lord Reed says that ‘even where primary legislation authorises the imposition of an intrusion on the right of access to justice, it is presumed to be subject to an implied limitation’, thereby bolstering the authority of the common law and the discretion of the courts in the face of explicit statutory human rights abrogation [88]. This last point is closely connected to the court’s commitment to a rich notion of the rule of law.

Lord Reed does not refer to his judgements in Osborn, A v BBC and the like, but instead spends considerable time discussing judgements from the first wave of common law constitutional rights. Perhaps this means that the substantive constitutional right in question, here access to the courts, is considered more pertinent than the underlying power of the courts to develop these rights. None of the younger judgements engage the right of access to the courts. Or perhaps the fundamental question as to the power of the courts to locate constitutional rights at common law and to enforce them against legislation was being avoided.

Continue reading

SUCCESSION TO THE CROWN BILL

7th March 2013

LORDS COMMITTEE STAGE 28 FEBRUARY 2013

The power of the well-phrased question

Bob Morris

There is nothing in Parliamentary debate quite like the well-phrased question for cutting to the heart of things. An issue is encapsulated and the minister has to respond. Unlike podium assemblies where speakers may hector without interruption, the UK Parliament can suddenly be made alive by a pithy intrusion.

Under examination was the clause that would abolish the rule dating from 1689 that no-one married to a Catholic may succeed to the throne. Discussion turned to an amendment (subsequently withdrawn) which would have permitted the sovereign to be a Catholic but made arrangements during the reign for the Supreme Governorship to be shouldered by an Anglican qualified under the Regency Acts. As noted previously – including by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRSC) in December 2011 (HC 1615) – removal of the Catholic marriage disqualification leaves intact the absolute ban on Catholics and anyone else not in communion with the Church of England from succeeding. The latter would, of course, disqualify Catholics (and most non-Anglicans) from succeeding even if the explicit ban on Catholics were removed.

Lord Forsyth (a Scottish episcopalian, former cabinet minister and Scottish Secretary) asked what was it that the government were trying to achieve with the provision:

‘Are they trying to end discrimination against Roman Catholics or are they just trying to enable the heir to the Throne to marry a Roman Catholic?’ (Hansard, Lords, 28 February 2013, col. 1230)

He added that he would be horrified if it were the latter. Whilst it was a good thing that people who wanted to marry should be able to do so, he had thought that the provision ‘was part of a wider agenda of ending discrimination against Catholics. We need to understand why the Bill has not provided for that…’ Lord Stevenson then intervened to point out that the amendments tabled on the point went ‘to the heart of whether the present Anglican establishment in England can or even should remain in its present form’ and suggested that it was time for further Parliamentary consideration in some appropriate committee. This suggestion gained some support though not from the minister who sheltered behind the fiction that such matters were for Parliament alone itself to decide.

None of this will stop the Bill. Parliament knows when it is being bounced and in any case the things in the Bill are not in themselves bad things that should be stopped. On the other hand, what their Lordships pointed out was that, in the words of a PCRSC witness, ‘one cannot half open a can of worms, because all the worms will come out’.

Has the time come for Parliament to take a closer look? We shall see. What is certain is that the Forsyth question will not go away.

Judicial Independence Across the World: Pakistan

This is the third blog that looks at judicial independence in various countries. We have already examined the situations in Papua New Guinea, Nepal & Morocco. We now turn our attention to Pakistan, where one controversial court case has brought the judiciary, legislature, President and opposition parties into open conflict. In common with some of our other case studies, the separation of powers has become very blurred – the executive and legislature are ignoring court judgments, and the judiciary seem to be unusually active in their rulings over political & moral matters.

Pakistan: In April 2012 the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was convicted of contempt of court by the nation’s Supreme Court. The judgment said that Mr Gilani had ‘wilfully flouted’ a court order.  The court had ordered Gilani to write to the Swiss authorities requesting them to open a corruption case against the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari. In order to make this ruling the court had to, controversially, strike down the National Reconciliation Ordinance, a 2007 political amnesty law, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Yousuf-Raza-Gilani

Yousuf Raza Gilani

Gilani’s lawyer, Aitaz Ahsan (who is also a senator for Gilani’s Pakistan Peoples Party), countered that reopening a case against a serving President would itself be unconstitutional, as incumbents benefit from legal immunity.

National Assembly members then requested that the Speaker of the National Assembly (Dr. Fehmida Mirza, also a PPP member) ask the Election Commission to have Mr Gilani removed from office and disqualify him as an MP. The opposition argued that under Article 63(1) (g) of Pakistan’s constitution, any person found guilty of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is banned from being an MP.

On the 24th May 2012 the Speaker refused to refer the case to the election commission claiming that, “I am of the view that the charges… are not relatable to the grounds mentioned (in the constitution)”.

Both main opposition parties, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), then separately petitioned the Supreme Court. PTI’s petition asks the court to declare Speaker Mirza’s ruling unlawful and issue a stay order against Mr Gilani exercising Prime Ministerial powers until the court has reached a judgment. The petition also asks that the Election Commission decide Gilani’s eligibility. The PML-N simply asks that Mr Gilani is barred from performing further duties.

The petitions will be heard by a three member Supreme Court bench.

The judicial independence picture is further complicated by the fact that Justice Khosa, one of the seven member bench that convicted Gilani in April 2012, thought it appropriate to add a note to the judgment that was somewhat of a morality lecture to Pakistani’s. The note even goes as far as to compare the Pakistani executive with Stalinist Russia and encourages Pakistan’s populace to take note of the Arab Spring!