‘The festering issue’ – the legality of a second independence referendum

With the Scottish government gearing up for a second independence referendum, questions have been raised about whether or not the Scottish Parliament can legislate for such a poll in a way that the courts will find lawful. In this post, David Torrance discusses the wording of the relevant legislation and the impact of subsequent caselaw, concluding that the prevailing legal understanding is that even a consultative referendum would be outside the scope of the parliament’s powers.

During the House of Lords’ consideration of what would become the Scotland Act 1998, Lord (Donald) Mackay of Drumadoon (a former Lord Advocate and subsequently a Scottish judge) told peers it would be ‘perfectly possible to construct a respectable legal argument’ that it was within the legislative competence of the soon-to-be-created Scottish Parliament to pass a bill authorising an independence referendum.

Lord Mackay added that he remained ‘convinced that the law on this matter should be clarified. If it is not then the festering issue as to whether the Scottish parliament is competent to hold such a referendum will rumble on.’ That was arguably a dictionary definition of prescience.

The debate, if not ‘festering’ does indeed ‘rumble on’ nearly a quarter of a century later, yet much of the commentary seems curiously circular, turning over arguments which might have been relevant in 1998 or 2012 but are less so in 2022. Chief among these is the idea that an ‘advisory’ or ‘consultative’ referendum might pass muster if the dispute were to reach the Supreme Court.

But first let us return to the Lords in 1998. Speaking for the government, Lords Sewel and Hardie (respectively a Scottish Office minister and the then Lord Advocate) were clear that an independence referendum bill would ‘relate to’ the reserved matter of the Union between Scotland and England and would therefore be ultra vires and outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament. As Lord (David) Hope of Craighead later observed, ‘the Scotland Act provides its own dictionary’.

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The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 led to greater judicial independence: politicians and parliament must continue to support it

As part of an ongoing inquiry, the Lords Constitution Committee has sought evidence as to whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Robert Hazell argues that the 2005 reforms led to greater judicial independence, a political achievement that requires continuing support from politicians and parliament.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the role of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers, in which it seeks to answer a number of questions, including whether ‘the amendment of the role of the Lord Chancellor by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA), and the resulting separation of powers between the judiciary and the Government, [have] been successful’. Through written evidence, submitted with Professor Kate Malleson, I have attempted to answer that question. Our answers were based upon the main findings and conclusions of a three-year research project on the Politics of Judicial Independence, funded by the AHRC. The research explored the impact of the greater separation of powers introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (CRA). Our principal conclusion – as explained in our 2015 book on the subject – was that judicial independence and judicial accountability have emerged stronger, not weaker; but that greater separation of powers requires increased engagement by the judiciary with other branches of government.

The changes made by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005

Until 2005 the head of the judiciary was a Cabinet minister, the Lord Chancellor. In an extraordinary breach of separation of powers, he could also sit as a judge in the UK’s highest court. The CRA removed the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary, handing that responsibility to the Lord Chief Justice in line with an agreement struck in the Concordat of 2004. The division of powers between the executive and judiciary was further refined in 2008 in a Framework Document for the management of the Courts Service (revised and updated in 2011 to incorporate the Tribunals Service). The CRA also created a new Supreme Court, and established the Judicial Appointments Commission.

The new politics of judicial independence are more formal, fragmented, and politicised

The old politics were informal, depending on regular meetings between the Lord Chancellor and senior judges; closed, in that these were virtually the only contacts between the judiciary and the government; and secretive, with both sides preserving each other’s confidences. They were also consensual and conservative, in that neither side wanted to change the system. The ‘new’ politics, by contrast, are much more formal. The CRA required more formal structures and processes to handle the relationships between more separate branches of government. We now have the Judicial Appointments Commission, Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman, and Judicial Conduct Investigations Office: all products of the CRA. The new formal processes include regular meetings between the judiciary and other branches of government, with the innovation of six-monthly meetings between the LCJ and Prime Minister, the introduction of regular meetings with senior officials in parliament, and annual appearances by the LCJ and President of the Supreme Court before the Constitution Committee.

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Scotland’s place in the Union will not be decided in the courts: only politicians can enable or prevent independence

Whether or not Scotland can legally hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster is a question that has provoked much debate. Ciaran Martin argues that the answer to this question does not really matter: regardless of the legality of any referendum, it is unrealistic to think that Scotland will leave the Union without the consent of Westminster. This makes the key question a political one, which the courts cannot resolve.

In mid-August I spoke at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom. My theme was that when the constitutional debate resumes (which it will) after the post-Holyrood election lull, there could, and in my view should, be a debate not just on what independence means, but on what remaining in the Union means. This is a fundamentally different proposition than it was in 2014, and not just because of Brexit.

In 2014, the three UK-wide unionist parties (which, let’s not forget, at the time held 53 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats between them) were all evidently comfortable with devolution. Both the UK government and the broader Better Together campaign spoke of ‘the best of both worlds’ of an autonomous Scotland within a devolved UK. As the polls tightened, the response was ‘the vow’ of more devolution.

Things are different this time. In July, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, leader of the most successful unionist party in any of the devolved territories, warned of ‘a Government that is instinctively hostile’ for the first time in the history of devolution. Sometimes such hostility is just blurted out; sometimes it becomes law, such as the constitutional land grab that is the Internal Market Act. Combined with the unworkability of fully federal models in the UK, this instability within the Union means that when Scotland is debating its constitutional future, the nature of the Union it’s being invited to stay in merits more discussion than last time.

Insofar as I thought any of my arguments would attract attention, it was this one. But instead, coverage emphasised a throwaway restatement of my long-articulated view that the Scottish government is likely (though I did not say certain) to lose any legal case brought against referendum legislation it seeks to pass in Holyrood in the absence of a Section 30 power agreed with Westminster.

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Parliament has the right to reverse judicial decisions, but governments must be careful not to undermine the important role the courts play as a check and balance in our unwritten constitution

The Independent Review of Administrative Law provoked much criticism and concern when it was announced by the government, but its final report was less radical than many predicted. In the last of our series of posts from speakers at our June conference on the government’s reform agenda, Lord Faulks speaks of the work of the review panel, which he chaired, and the government bill that resulted, which went further than the review recommended in terms of limiting judicial review.

The government has now published the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has had its first reading in the House of Commons and will proceed through its remaining parliamentary stages in the autumn.

The Independent Review of Administrative Law, which I had the privilege of chairing, will now be a footnote in the development of the law in relation to judicial review. The panel no longer exists and its members have returned to their normal pursuits

I would like to think, however, that we made a useful contribution to the debate. There were some commentators who thought the setting up of the review was ‘sinister’ and that our conclusions would inevitably lead to the radical reform of judicial review. I can assure those who said this that the review was genuinely independent, in the sense that we reached our conclusions entirely free from any interference by government. We were, however, influenced by the many high quality submissions that we received. Whatever our preliminary views might have been, we approached our task in an open way and without any predetermined conclusions.

The response by the government was at least initially, that it wanted to go further and it set in motion a further consultation. That was a course, it seemed to me, that it was entirely open to it.

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