Murmuring the (supreme) judges – 3

A frequent reaction to the bizarre Supreme Court ruling in Cherry/Miller (the prorogation case) has been to demand the abolition of the Supreme Court and to return the its jurisdiction to the House of Lords.  That is a wrongheaded approach, illogical and flying in the face of evidence, for the most part.

Tony Blair made constitutional innovations on the hoof, and the invention of the Supreme Court seems outwardly to be one of these but in truth this reform had been rumbling for a hundred and thirty years. In 1873, in Gladstone’s time, the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords was abolished, and a Supreme Court was created for England. However a General Election (remember them?) intervened: the incoming Conservatives restored the power of the House of Lords, but turned it into a real court, appointing qualified judges as life peers. From that point, ultimate appellate jurisdiction was only nominally that of the Lords: no peer ever sat in judgment who was not qualified. It was a separate supreme court in all but name. Constitutional experts even so pointed out the impropriety of mixing the judicature with the legislature.

Tony Blair’s new Supreme Court is little more than a rebranding and removing an anomaly.  Reversing the change would achieve nothing.

Politics and the court

The prorogation judgment is the latest in a line of judgments in which the judges have expanded their own authority to review and quash government actions.

This tendency started in the House of Lords, not Mr Blair’s Supreme Court. The fault is not in the name of the court but in mission-creep. When one embraces the concept that the whole of the state and society is wrapped in a comprehensive code of law then every action must be judged by rules, and therefore judged by judges.

A review of the cases, large and small, shows statistically that very few cases actually succeed (about 1%) which suggests that judges are not leaping in usurp the powers of decision-makers. Even so, where the actions do succeed there is an uneasy sense that judges feel more ready to quash decisions out of caution, to give a chance to stop or postpone a momentous change, and to ask the decision-maker if they are quite sure.  That is not properly in the realm of the judge, but it is a human reaction.

None of this has anything to do with the creation of the Supreme Court in place of the Lords, and so we must, for once, acquit Tony Blair of wrongdoing.

That said, there may be some cause to worry about whether the very name ‘Supreme Court’ tempts a comparison with that of the United States and emboldens its judges to interfere even in the sovereign actions of the state, like their American brethren. The constitutional position is very different, but it is a matter of psychology. At the time of its creation there were legal journalists who asked if the new court would go all American, and not all the judges dismissed the idea out of hand. That is a worrying.

So far, the court has stuck to the constitution as we understand it, until the prorogation case. In spite of occasional dark hints detectable in occasional obiter dicta, no judgment has renounced the Supreme Court’s subjection to Acts of Parliament.

Murmuring the judges

After the prorogation judgment was handed down, the court looked political. On the assumption that we now have an American-style political court, voices were raised proposing confirmation hearings for judges. That though is the surest way to ensure there is indeed a political court, and not of the flavour these advocates for change would want, for Conservatives will choose judges who know the law, while Socialists will choose those versed in Marxist assumptions.

I predicted these moves and other in earlier articles, as readers may recall:

Choosing judges politically would or socio-politically be the greatest constitutional vandalism of all.

Robert Buckland QC, the Lord Chancellor has wisely rejected the suggestion of allowing Parliament to hold such hearings.

Another way

There is an alternative, which is in the hands of Parliament, is unimpeachable in propriety and which is no more than for Parliament to perform a neglected duty. Parliament should make the law clear.

Judicial review is a vast field, such that when trying to write layman’s guide, this site became rather tangled in explanations. I will revisit it frequently no doubt. The rules governing judicial review are all judge-made law, since no rules nor guidance have been given by any Act of Parliament and so the courts have been forced to guess the rules by implication.

Therefore those parliamentarians who make their voices heard in the cause of supervising the judges should do their own part and throw their weight behind actually writing the rules down.  Compose a code to imply into every delegated power how and on what grounds it may lawfully be exercised, or if there are powers in the decisionmaker’s unchallengeable discretion. Parliamentarians should give rules which are to be followed and make them clear. Until they do so, they have only themselves to blame when judges left on their own make rulings they do not like.

See also

Books

Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

One thought on “Murmuring the (supreme) judges – 3”

  1. Good article, thanks. I think that prorogation judgment was an unconstitutional travesty but I agree that shifting the highest court back to the Lords wouldn't make any substantive difference and that what was lacking here is clear Parliamentary Law.

    There is a short-term problem in that we have a minority government unable to call an election and currently held captive by a rogue Speaker. This will not last forever, no matter how bizarre it gets between now and the election.

    Once the FTPA is repealed, the next government can pass a Law clearly making parliamentary procedure, including prorogation, outside any external Court's jurisdiction. They also need some sort of oversight committee to rein in a rogue Speaker when necessary. Once these adjustments are made, things will go merrily on again.

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