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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How do you solve a problem like judical review reform?

The Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL) announced last autumn has been much criticised for both its remit and its process. Joe Tomlinson and Lewis Graham offer an early assessment of the review, highlighting the flaws in its conception and design. They also acknowledge that the recently announced review of human rights seems not to be repeating the mistakes of IRAL.

In our constitutional system, it is a reality that central government wears two hats in relation to the judicial review system: the actor chiefly responsible for the design and management of the system in practice and the key ‘repeat player’ defendant. It is almost inevitable that, from time to time, tensions will result from this arrangement. Indeed, the UK has a rich history of governments of different political stripes ‘clamping down’ on the judicial review system and ‘striking back’ against specific court judgments. When such moments occur, they understandably provoke a form of constitutional anxiety that is familiar in the UK: a sense that the government is allowed to mark its own homework (or at least to exercise influence over the marker). While cyclical anxiety about the position of judicial review and looming reforms may be better understood as a feature not a bug of our contemporary system, startlingly little attention has been paid to the issue of how reform to the judicial review system ought to be considered. 

The importance of the reform process adopted was on display recently when, after being on the wrong side of a series of high-profile court cases, the government announced that the time was right for a new wide-ranging reconsideration of judicial review. It was clear immediately that this review—styled the Independent Review of Administrative Law (IRAL)—promised to be the most expansive policy examination of judicial review in decades. It is chaired by Lord (Edward) Faulks—a former Conservative Justice minister and now a crossbencher in the House of Lords—and constituted of a small group of academics and practitioners. Six months or so later, there has been much angst about potentially regressive changes being proposed and the defence of the current system has been robust. However, at the same time, many have been pointing to what they perceive to be significant deficiencies in the reform process. Features of the IRAL process which have drawn criticism include:

  • Confusion over the parameters of review: IRAL’s formal Terms of Reference have been described by Mark Elliott as ‘replete [with] syntactical errors’ and commentators have drawn attention to a number of ambiguities relating to the scope of the Panel’s mandate. For example, whilst the Review’s Call for Evidence confirmed that it was ‘considering public law control of all UK wide and England and Wales powers only,’ it seemingly left open a number of questions as to how any proposed changes to the law would affect devolved institutions (see here, here and here). The consultation also contains a paucity of relevant information, in contrast to previous consultations, which included details of the specific proposals and empirical data being considered. 
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Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgThe Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (as discussed previously on this blog by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick) and engage in a wider programme of constitutional reform. In February, the Unit hosted an event to discuss the new government’s constitutional reform agenda: Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions. 

Page 48 of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to a wide range of constitutional reform proposals – including repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), an ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the creation of a ‘Constitution Democracy and Rights Commission’ to examine broader aspects of the constitution. On 4 February, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the implementation of this agenda, entitled ‘The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges. The panel consisted of two Conservatives: Lord Andrew Dunlop, a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland; and Chris White, a former Special Adviser to William Hague, Andrew Lansley and Patrick McLoughlin. Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, chaired the event. The following is a summary of the main contributions. 

Lord Dunlop

Lord Dunlop suggested that the key question for the new government is what ‘taking back control’ means in constitutional terms. The years since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 have been incredibly rich for those interested in the constitution. We have seen a deadlocked parliament, an arguably ‘activist’ judiciary, and fracturing Union, whilst foundational concepts like parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and the rule of law have come under scrutiny. It would be wrong, however, to see the government’s manifesto commitments as simply a direct response to the political and constitutional crisis of last autumn. Brexit placed a number of areas of the constitution under strain, but for Dunlop, it is the long-term context that is key to explaining the proposals in the manifesto. In his opinion, the proposals are not about ‘settling scores’.

For a number of years, EU membership, the devolution settlements and the HRA have all to varying extents limited parliament’s law-making powers. For example, Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, has pointed out the profound changes that the HRA has brought to the role of judges in relation to interpretation of statute law, and retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures have contributed to a long-running debate about the proper role of judges in a democracy. In Lord Dunlop’s view, the proposals on page 48 of the manifesto reflect the fact that Brexit has put additional pressure on an already strained constitution, and should therefore prompt us to consider whether the constitution is operating as it should.  Continue reading