Video: The Euro Crisis and its Implications for European Institutions (Charles Grant)

Charles Grant (Centre for European Reform)

Date and Time: Wednesday 13 June, 6.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The euro crisis has led not only to new EU treaties, but also to profound power shifts among various member-states and the EU institutions. The European Commission has never been so weak, while Germany has never been so strong.

Co-founder and director of the Centre for European Reform Charles Grant will discuss the implications of the ongoing crisis for the way European institutions operate. He is a former Brussels correspondent for the Economist and the author of many publications on the EU, as well as a former director of the British Council.

Video: Elected Mayors

Date and Time: Tuesday 22 May, 6pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Jules Pipe

The London borough of Hackney has had an elected Mayor since 2002, when Jules Pipe was elected into office.  Mr Pipe argued that Hackney faced series issues at the time; crime rates were high, the council’s finances were in a poor state, and educational attainment was low.

Mr Pipe recognised that before changes could be made in the borough, changes would have to be made to the council itself.  His first priorities were to reintroduce good governance and financial competence.  In practice this meant improving the lines of communication within the council, developing a shared vision, and pursuing the best value for money for the borough.

The new Mayor set high standards for his team, bringing in experienced people and fostering a performance management culture.  Their aim was to improve the services that would benefit the whole community, focussing on projects such as building new schools, resurfacing roads and improving public amenities.

In his view, it remains vitally important to work with other bodies, such as the Police and the London Mayor, to achieve the best results for Hackney.  Mr Pipe’s long-term goal is to improve the reputation of Hackney, so as to encourage commercial investment.

Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis explained how he first became involved in the campaign for elected Mayors after being invited to speak at the Lunar Society in Birmingham last year.  In his view, the city lacked a coherent vision for the future; what it needed was a Mayor to fight for Birmingham’s interests.

According to Lord Adonis, a recent study has shown that only 16% of people think they know who the leader of their local council is – and half of those get it wrong.  In his view, having directly elected Mayors would raise the profile of local politics, and improve local council accountability.

Despite the largely negative response to elected Mayors in the recent referendums, Lord Adonis believes that all major cities could have elected Mayors within 15 to 20 years.  He argues that the introduction of elected Police Commissioners in November will help the case for elected Mayors, as they will have some of the powers of elected Mayors.

Note prepared by Jeremy Swan, intern on the Unit’s Special Advisers project.

Video: Scrutinising Administrative Justice

Richard Thomas

Date and Time: Thursday 26 April, 1.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Chair of the Administrative Justice & Tribunals Council (AJTC) Richard Thomas CBE spoke in detail about the functions of administrative justice and the implications of its (possible) demise.

1. Administrative Law & Wider Justice

Mr Thomas defined administrative justice as how well the State makes decisions about people – affecting their benefits, taxes, immigration status, education, housing and (in the case of mental health patients) their liberty.

Over one million appeals and complaints against the decisions of public bodies are made each year to various Ombudsmen, tribunals and other institutions. These appeals have a success rate of approximately 35-50%, suggesting widespread failure to make correct decisions in the first instance. An aim of the AJTC is to encourage tribunals etc. to ‘get it right first time’.

The AJTC was established by the Tribunals & Courts Act 2007 (s44) and is an advisory non-departmental government body with statutory responsibility observe tribunals etc. in action and to scrutinise (from the user’s viewpoint) administrative justice on behalf of the Lord Chancellor. However, it is due to be abolished later this year, despite the recent conclusion of the Public Administration Select Committee that its role of providing independent overview is one of “vital national importance”.

2. Why is independent scrutiny and challenge important?

Mr Thomas argued that administrative justice needs external overview as individuals often use the system to challenge monopolistic state power. Therefore, it is fundamentally important to have an independent view of how users could seek redress.

Furthermore, in many areas that the administrative justice system serves, there is no market pressure to improve upon dispute resolution/complaints services. This means that scrutiny bodies like the AJTC are the only way to ensure best practice.

3. Why – unlike most other countries – is administrative justice the Cinderella of the justice system?

Agreeing that administrative justice is not held in particularly high regard by politicians and the executive, Mr Thomas offered several explanations. First, legal aid has always been limited for many tribunals and this will only get worse with the on-going legal aid cuts. Secondly, many tribunals are ‘do it yourself’ forums where parties often represent themselves and this can lower the prestige of the system. Thirdly, many administrative law cases involve issues that cut across several government departments and subject areas – and thus ‘fall into the cracks’.

4. What are the implications of cuts to legal and advice services?

It will be very difficult to pre-judge the effects of the legal aid cuts and it would be best to ‘wait & see’, Mr Thomas argued. He suggested that the administrative justice system could operate less efficiently as many individuals would be appearing before tribunals without any advice whatsoever.

5. Could the Ministry of Justice perform the functions of the AJTC?

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) believes that it can take over scrutiny of the administrative justice system. Whilst not doubting that the MoJ has the competence to perform such a role, Mr Thomas identified the obvious problem: the MoJ is very much a part of the executive and so cannot be an independent arbiter.

Note prepared by Nick Perkins, intern on the Unit’s Judicial Independence project.

See also:

Recent Judicial Independence Seminars: ‘Law, Politics and the Future of Human Rights Act’ and ‘Judicial Independence and Judicial Appointments’

The Judicial Independence Project recently held two seminars for politicians, judges, lawyers and academics, run under the Chatham House Rule. The first, on ‘Law, Politics and the Future of the Human Rights Act’ on 2 February, was jointly organised with Prof Dawn Oliver and Middle Temple. The headline conclusion was that most speakers expected that the Coalition Government’s Commission on a British Bill of Rights would come to nothing, leaving the Human Rights Act (HRA) intact. The nature of Britain’s international human rights obligations – under the Convention but also increasingly, and much more directly, under EU law – entail that Britain cannot really take away from Convention rights but can only add to them. However, some thought that there was still a possibility that the HRA might be weakened after the current process.

Several speakers also argued that the UK courts are not obliged to follow the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in every circumstance, and that Lord Bingham’s argument to this effect in the Ullah case was wrong. The UK could make greater use of the margin of appreciation afforded by the Convention to member states. However, there was also positive reference to the dialogue that occurred between the UK Supreme Court in connection with the Al Khawaja and Horncastle cases.

Speakers also acknowledged the phenomenon of public discontent with the HRA. This discontent is based mainly on perception rather than substance and survey evidence reveals very high support for human rights but poor support for the HRA itself, and poor understanding of the Act. But politicians will not ignore this public discontent while it exists.

The second seminar was on ‘Judicial Independence and Judicial Appointments’. Speakers commented on the vulnerability of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC). The Commissionis a young organisation but has already been reviewed by the Ministry of Justice (in 2010; the result was positive) and included, and then excluded, from the Public Bodies Bill as part of a list of quangos that were potentially to be abolished. As one speaker put it ‘we’ve planted a daffodil and a number of times we’ve pulled the daffodil out of the ground to review whether or not it’s working’. The JAC needs time to develop and establish itself.

There was some discussion about the role of Parliament in appointments. Some participants (although not all) felt that judges currently have too much involvement in appointment and argued that judicial independence does not require the involvement of judges in the selected of their successors. One suggested that a greater role for the Lord Chancellor and Parliament in appointments would be of benefit to judges. By increasing the legitimacy of appointments and by getting politicians to invest in the process, judges would gain some protection from conflict with politicians. It was suggested that UK Supreme Court justices, in particular, should not be appointed without the approval of a select committee.

You can read short notes of both of these seminars on the Project website:

Law, Politics and the Future of the Human Rights Act

Judicial Independence and Judicial Appointments

The Workings of the British Constitution and the Cabinet Manual

 Constitutional and Administrative Law Bar Association (ALBA) event

Topic: Government in the Age of Coalition: The Workings of the British Constitution and the Cabinet Manual

Speakers: Lord (Peter) Hennessy, Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, and Andrew Blick

Chair: Lady Justice Arden

Date: 14 March 2012, 17.45-19.15

Venue: Bingham Room (formerly the Spy Room), Gray’s Inn

Further details: