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.

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Miller and the media: Supreme Court judgement generates more measured response

img_4218In this post Ailsa McNeil presents the findings of an analysis of newspaper coverage of the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case. It shows that whilst the High Court judges faced an onslaught of criticism from Brexit-supporting newspapers the reaction to the Supreme Court judgement was more measured. Two factors can explain this: the fact the prospect of parliament delaying the triggering of Article 50 appeared remote by the time the Supreme Court delivered their verdict and the widespread condemnation of some of the coverage of the High Court judgement.

The reaction from some newspapers to November’s High Court ruling provoked almost as much controversy as the decision itself. The judges, branded ‘Enemies of the people’ (Daily Mail, 4 Nov 2016), faced an onslaught of criticism, which knew no bounds. The attacks were personal, vicious and an affront to the rule of law. Although the coverage of the Supreme Court decision was less hostile, some newspapers continued to admonish the judiciary.

We analysed the editorials published on the day following the decisions, 4 November 2016 and 25 January 2017 respectively, in five broadsheets (The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Times) and five tabloids (The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Star and The Daily Express). Where the publication lacked an opinion piece, we used the closest equivalent, usually written by the political editor.

For each, we considered several questions: whether the article was critical or supportive of the judgement; whether it condemned the judges, or if the commentary was likely to decrease trust in the judiciary. Finally, we asked if the editorial breached the Attorney General’s guidelines for contempt of court.

Of the editorials that were critical of the High Court ruling, two published articles that spoke about the judges in terms that we considered would decrease a readers trust in the judiciary. The Daily Mail was quick to question the independence of the ‘unelected’ High Court judges. The article made several statements which suggested the decision was not made impartially. This tone was echoed in the Daily Express. Explicit criticism of the courts, with judges being criticised as out of touch, or too lenient in their sentencing, is not unusual. However, the severity of the criticism this time was unprecedented, as was the outrage that the media coverage generated amongst defenders of judicial independence and the rule of law.

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Following the Supreme Court ruling, what happens next?

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Following today’s Supreme Court judgement, the focus of attention shifts back to parliament.  How long will it take for parliament to pass the necessary legislation? How likely is it that the legislation will be amended? Robert Hazell and Alan Renwick assess the implications for the Brexit timetable, and the government’s negotiating strategy.

What will happen to the government’s timetable?

The government have confirmed that they will introduce a short bill, probably just one or two clauses, which it will seek to pass as a matter of urgency. Bills have occasionally been passed through parliament in a few days, or even a few hours. But that can only happen if both chambers recognise the urgency, and support the bill. Crucially, the government would need to get majority support for a timetabling motion in the House of Commons to expedite the process. That might not be forthcoming in a House where three quarters of MPs voted for Remain. (In 2012 Nick Clegg had to abandon his Lords Reform bill after the government lost the timetabling motion following a big Conservative rebellion).

In the House of Lords, the government has no majority, and no control over time. The Lords Constitution Committee and the Lords EU Committee will both want to scrutinise the bill and its implications. The Lords will not block or wreck the bill, but they will want to give it proper scrutiny; especially if they think the scrutiny in the Commons has been inadequate.

Can the bill be amended?

In November government sources suggested the bill would be ‘bombproof’. Parliamentary officials say that is a fantasy. All sorts of ingenious amendments can be tabled, on process as well as substance: requiring a white paper to be published setting out the government’s negotiating position; seeking a second referendum on the negotiated terms; requiring the government to acknowledge that Article 50 notification is revocable, etc. Debate risks exposing continuing splits within both the Conservative and the Labour parties. Because the referendum specified nothing about what Brexit means, the battle continues between Brexiteers, who mostly support a hard Brexit, and Remainers hoping for a soft Brexit. Meanwhile Labour remains split on how to respond to the referendum outcome – to respect the will of the 52 per cent (who make up a majority in constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the forthcoming by-election will be hard fought), or speak up for the majority of Labour voters, who backed Remain. Speaking in parliament after the judgement, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, indicated that Labour would seek to amend the Article 50 legislation to require a white paper on the government’s plans, stipulate mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations, and hold a ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal. Legislation gives all groups in parliament multiple opportunities to table amendments or extract promises or impose conditions on the government during its passage.

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Brexit in the Supreme Court, and after: your questions answered

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The Supreme Court will be the centre of political attention this week when the government’s appeal of last month’s High Court ruling on the triggering of Article 50 is heard. Robert Hazell and Harmish Mehta offer an overview of what the case is about, the likely outcome and its implications for the Brexit timetable.

The Brexit appeal to be heard by the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) from 5 to 8 December is the constitutional case of the century. All eyes will be on the Court hearing (which is to be broadcast live). And not just in Britain, but around the world. In recent weeks Robert Hazell has been advising foreign embassies, banks and investment managers from New York to Tokyo about the significance of the case, and the consequences which may flow from the court’s decision. They were particularly concerned about the impact on the timetable, the likelihood of the government getting authorising legislation through parliament, and the possibility of Brexit being delayed or even aborted. Here are some answers to their most frequently asked questions.

What is the case about?

On 3 November the High Court ruled that it was unlawful for the government to use prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the negotiations for Brexit, without reference to parliament. The government accepts that the judgement requires legislation to authorise the triggering of Article 50. But it has appealed to the Supreme Court to have the judgement reversed. All 11 Justices will hear the appeal from 5 to 8 December in a packed timetable. Their judgement is expected in January.

What is the likely outcome?

The case has generated huge interest amongst constitutional lawyers. Initial comment was strongly supportive of the High Court judgement, but since then the 30 or so commentaries on the UK Constitutional Law Blog have been more evenly divided. The government is likely to lose the appeal, because it has not significantly shifted its ground from the arguments it advanced in the High Court. In particular, it still maintains that Article 50 is irreversible: once triggered, it leads inexorably to the UK’s departure from the EU. The reasons for that are political: the government does not want to allow the possibility of second thoughts. But it seriously weakens the government’s legal case. It enabled the claimants to show that triggering Article 50 would lead inevitably to the abolition of statutory rights, such as the right to vote in European Parliament elections, and the alteration of UK statutes. They then argued that under a series of cases going back to the seventeenth century, statutory rights can only be abolished and UK statutes can only be altered by another statute, not by the prerogative.

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The Article 50 judgement and withdrawing from treaties

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The coverage of last Thursday’s High Court judgement on Article 50 has understandably focused on its immediate consequences for the process by which the UK will leave the European Union. However, if upheld by the Supreme Court, it is also likely to have wider constitutional significance. In this post Harmish Mehta explores the implications of one part of the court’s judgement, that the Crown’s prerogative may not be used to unmake a treaty without parliament’s approval if that would change domestic law or diminish the rights of individuals. He suggests that this could mean that the government could not withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights without parliamentary approval.

Part of the UK constitution is the judgements of its courts of law. Such judgements can have transformative and prolonged effects on UK constitutional practice.

On 3 November, the High Court (‘the court’) handed down its judgement in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union ([2016] EWHC 2768), which stated that the executive does not have power under the Crown’s prerogative to give notice pursuant to Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (‘TEU’) for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the EU [para. 111]). The UK Supreme Court will hear the appeal against the judgement on 5-8 December.

Of course, Miller has a considerable impact on the prospects of the UK exiting the EU in the near future. However, it should not be forgotten that Miller is a judgement of wider constitutional importance. Subject to it being modified by the Supreme Court, it has the potential to shape the UK constitution beyond Brexit. This is partly the consequence of its appeal to, and development of, longstanding and far-reaching principles of constitutional law. It rivals even R (Jackson) v Attorney General ([2005] UKHL 56) in its exploration of the UK’s constitutional history and statements of apparent constitutional truisms.

In this post I will explore the implications of one part of the court’s judgement, which amounts to what I will call, for brevity alone, the ‘unmaking principle’. This principle is that the Crown’s prerogative may not be used to unmake a treaty without parliament’s approval if that would change domestic law, be it statute or common law, in any way, or diminish rights of individuals.

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Judicial Independence and Parliament

The Judicial Independence Project recently held its third seminar for professionals (judges, politicians, civil servants and journalists, amongst others) on the topic of ‘Judicial Independence and Accountability: The Role of Parliament’.

The discussion focused on the relationship between Parliament and the courts and reference was made to the idea of ‘comity’ as the basis for this relationship: mutual respect combined with distance. Some worried, however, that comity might freeze relations so that there is little communication between both sides. It was noted that there is no constitutional bar to political criticism of the judiciary. It was generally agreed that criticism (even unfair criticism) does not affect the independence of judges.

Several speakers emphasised also that the high profile breaches of super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions by parliamentarians in 2011 were not breaches of the sub judice rule but rather breaches of court orders which are not captured by that rule. Injunctions of this kind raise different issues to sub judice and a new rule may be required.

The seminar was run under Chatham House Rule, but we have prepared a short anonymised note of the discussion.

Read the seminar note

When the supreme court won’t hear

Supreme court justices are caught up in a new age of accountability. In their judgments, they increasingly find themselves holding the government and other public bodies to account, as they decide more public law cases. On the other hand, they are often criticised as ‘unaccountable’ – an example being Michael Howard’s reaction to a court challenge to government cuts. In a similar vein, David Cameron said he was ‘appalled‘ by the court’s decision about the sex offenders register. The legitimacy of the court was also a factor in the Scottish government’s threat to withhold its funding after the decision overturning the verdict in a Scottish murder case.

Does this suggest that the supreme court has an accountability problem? In many ways, our top judges are more accountable than ever. True, they are not subject to ‘hard’ accountability. They do not have to answer for their decisions in front of political opponents, or lose their jobs if their decisions prove unpopular. They are subject instead to ‘soft’ or ‘narrative’ accountability that requires them to explain their judgments and the way the court conducts its business.

For our top judges, it has involved a big change, of practice and of culture. The law lords were tucked away inside the Palace of Westminster, with staff provided by parliament, no proper annual report or accounts, and a minimal website. The supreme court operates under the public gaze. Decisions are easily accessible on the court’s website, with summaries for those not legally qualified. The court is televised, with TV streaming hearings and judgments via the Sky News website. Criteria for appointment to the court include the ‘willingness to participate in the wider representational role of a justice’, by delivering lectures and talking to conferences. Some of the justices have featured in TV documentaries.

The chief executive’s annual report and accounts give an account to parliament and the public of its activities and how the court has spent its budget. ‘Soft’ accountability has fashioned a more transparent court that is much more energetic in giving an account of its judicial business and day-to-day operations, with 238,000 visitors to the court’s website last year.

But there are limits to the court’s quest for openness. The reasons for refusing permission to appeal to the court remain brief and formulaic. Yet leave to appeal matters, because two out of three applications are refused. Applications for leave are generally considered by a panel of three justices. Some practitioners have called for fuller reasons to be given since this could help avoid futile applications in future. True, the justices consider what information to convey to the parties when permission is refused, but this falls significantly short of the practice in some other top courts. In New Zealand, for example, there is a statutory requirement to give reasons for refusal to grant leave, with these reasons often running to over a page.

Another controversial issue is how the court determines the size and composition of the panels that hear cases. Composition matters, because a panel that decides a case by 3:2 might have come to a different result with a different set of justices. The court sits in panels of five, seven or nine justices. The factors determining how many hear particular cases are unclear (beyond the obvious concerns that panels have relevant expertise, as well as the need to ensure an even workload across the twelve justices). In its first year, the court sat in panels with more than five justices in 18 out of 68 cases (as compared with only three panels with five or more law lords in 2006-2009). As the trend is towards greater use of larger panels, the court needs to clarify the criteria used to determine the size and selection of panels.

The court’s decisions extend to many aspects of our lives. In the last two years, landmark decisions have touched on such matters as faith schools, bank charges, prenuptial agreements and control orders. These decisions have far-reaching policy implications, sometimes upsetting the policy preferences of elected politicians. True, parliament can legislate to reverse decisions of the court, and from time to time does so. But, in practice, the buck often stops with the justices. So it matters who they are and how they come to be appointed.

Only the most difficult and important legal questions fall to be decided by the court. There are often no clear-cut answers. Sometimes the law is unclear, and so the justices must choose between competing interpretations. Sometimes there is no law applicable, and the justices expound a new law. Because there are no clear-cut answers, and because different judges are influenced by different views on the judicial role, the identity of individual justices matters. Appointing one person rather than another influences the result of the questions decided by the court.

Under the new appointment arrangements in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 the president and vice-president of the supreme court have an important say, since they are two out of five members on the body which selects new justices. Some have argued that while they should certainly be consulted, they should not be directly involved in selecting other members of the court, lest the court become a self-selecting oligarchy.

Others have suggested involving parliament, with appointees appearing before a parliamentary committee to explain their background and broad approach to judging. MPs are increasingly keen to scrutinise public appointments, with some 60 of the most important now subject to an appearance before the relevant select committee before the appointment is confirmed. But there seems less parliamentary interest in scrutinising the appointment of judges, and most candidates for judicial office recoil in horror at the prospect of a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing. Senior judges like the lord chief justice make regular appearances before select committees to explain the work of the courts, but parliamentary involvement in senior judicial appointments is still seen as a step too far.

This piece first appeared in the Guardian

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