The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading

Graham Gee and Kate Malleson: Judicial Appointments, Diversity and the Equal Merit Provision

This is posted on behalf of Graham Gee and Kate Malleson and originally appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Association Blog.

One of the changes introduced by the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was to amend section 63 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which provides that the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) must select candidates for judicial office ‘solely on merit’. Schedule 13 of the 2013 Act clarified that making selections solely on merit does not prevent the JAC from recommending a candidate on the basis of improving diversity on the bench where there are two candidates of equal merit. This is variously known as the ‘equal merit’, ‘tie-break’ or ‘tipping point’ provision and derives from s 159 of the Equality Act 2010. After a consultation exercise last summer, the JAC last month published its policy on how it will implement the equal merit provision. In this post, we draw on research conducted as part of an AHRC-funded project on The Politics of Judicial Independence to explain why the JAC’s policy is disappointingly cautious, limits the prospect of further progress on diversity and offers further evidence of what we believe is the excessive judicial influence on judicial appointments 

Context

We begin with some words of praise for the JAC. Since its creation in 2006, the JAC has inter alia devised: robust processes that have for the most part identified suitably qualified candidates of good character; addressed problems that were an early feature of those processes (e.g. delays); and over time has fostered the confidence of the key stakeholders (i.e. ministers, judges and practitioners). It has done this all of this whilst becoming a leaner and more efficient operation in an age of increasingly scarce public resources. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, its budget is projected to have fallen from £7.6m to £4.85m, its staff from 105 to 67, and yet the number of recommendations for judicial office that the JAC has made has risen from approximately 450 to 750 a year. These are important accomplishments that have helped to secure the JAC’s position on the institutional landscape, something that was much less certain around 2008-09 when the then Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, considered abolishing the JAC and either bringing appointments back in-house or delegating more responsibility to the senior judges. Much credit is due to the leadership team of Christopher Stephens as Chair and Nigel Reeder as Chief Executive, who since 2011 succeeded in fostering much more constructive and cooperative relationships with the JAC, the senior judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.

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