The Baroness Hale of Richmond today gave the 2021 Magna Carta Lecture for Royal Holloway, University of London, in which she recounted the events of her 2019 ruling on the lawfulness of prorogation.
The lecture was conducted on Microsoft Teams with over two hundred attendees. Paul Layzell, the college principal, made the introductory speech.
Hale told the tale of the events leading up to her court’s judgement. The prorogation ceremony had taken place on Monday 9th (technically the early hours of Tuesday 10th) September. On Wednesday 11th September three judges of the Inner House of Scotland’s Court of Session ruled that the prorogation was unlawful. On the same day the High Court of England & Wales ruled that the matter was non-justicable. One day later the High Court of Northern Ireland declined to rule on the prorogation as the other courts had already done so.
It was obvious that, there being only one UK Parliament, these contradictory rulings could only be resolved by the UK Supreme Court and that their answer had to be reached relatively quickly lest the alleged unlawful purpose (of reducing the legislature’s sitting time) would already have been achieved before the court could say that it shouldn’t. As with the first Miller case the decision was made to use a maximally-large panel of eleven justices to prevent suggestion that the panel’s composition would have changed the result. The parties were given impossibly tight deadlines to file their written submissions and other documents for the hearings between Tuesday 17th and Thursday 19th September.
Her ladyship treated us to a brief history of constitutional law, including Magna Carta itself of course but more specifically various rulings on the extent and the exercise of royal prerogative powers whether by monarchs themselves or their ministers. She referred to Sir Edward Coke, who as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1607 declared that the King could not overrule courts according to his own preferences, and then in 1610 ruled that the King could not create new criminal offences by proclamation, and that the King had no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him. Any question of who made the law in the first place was settled by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which William III & Mary II were elevated to the throne on the express condition that only the King-in-Parliament could make law.
Hale referred to other prerogative cases such as Entick v Carrington in 1765 which held that the Secretary of State lacked to the authority on his own to issue search warrants, and Attorney-General v De Keyser’s Royal Hotel Ltd in 1920 which held that prerogative powers could not overturn a statutory prohibition on requisitioning property without compensation. The latter, she noted, is now more famous for the dispute over how “De Keyser” should be pronounced. I recall that episode being reenacted on Have I Got News For You. A more recent case was Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service in 1984, surrounding the government’s attempt to ban – via Order in Council – GCHQ staff from unionising. The Law Lords held that such prerogative powers were subject to judicial review but that national security concerns were a legitimate exception. The most recent precedent was R v Chaytor in 2010, which decided that MPs’ expenses claims were not protected by Parliamentary Privilege because, Hale told us, “Proceedings in Parliament are what MPs do when they go about the core business of the house – taking part in debates, questions committees, votes – not anything and everything that MPs may do when they’re in the Palace of Westminster.”
She then returned to the prorogation hearing, noting that counsel for the litigant from Northern Ireland “had to be reminded more than once that we were not there to decide whether Brexit could be reconciled with the Good Friday Agreement”. She acknowledged that some people were surprised by the speed with which the court was prepared to give judgement, but argued “We were already ten days into the prorogation, so time was of the essence.”. The justices worked at furious speed over the weekend to have draft judgements typed, agreed and processed in time for handing down on Tuesday.
All parties agreed that the court could determine the existence and extent of prerogative powers, but there were disputes over whether exercise thereof was justicable. The justices determined that the case was about the former: The power to prorogue could not be unlimited, for that would foul the principles of Parliamentary Sovereignty and Parliamentary Accountability. The justices concluded that “advising the monarch to prorogue Parliament would be unlawful if the prorogation had the effect of frustrating or preventing without reasonable justification the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for supervising the government”. If the effect of this prorogation was unlawful then it would not be necessary for the Prime Minister’s intent to be reviewed. The court easily concluded that the effect was as described and that there was no reasonable justification – the government’s only explanation of any kind being a memorandum from Nikki da Costa which gave reasons for having a speech from the throne on 14th October (long set in Her Majesty’s diary), but not for closing Parliament five weeks in advance instead of the usual six days or so. It was acknowledged that those weeks included the party conference season when the legislature tended not to sit anyway, but pointed out in this instance MPs and peers might have elected to stay at work to oversee the major constitutional change looming on 31st October.
Finally the government had argued that the prorogation itself, in contrast to the ministerial advice, was a Proceeding in Parliament and thus immune to challenge by any court. There came the meat of Lady Hale’s judgement – although the prorogation ceremony took place in the Lords’ chamber with members of both houses present it was not something that the legislature had debated or decided, rather it was imposed upon them from outside. The court was therefore entitled to question it, and they decided that with the ministerial advice having been unlawful, the Order in Council to which it led must also have been unlawful. In a memorable turn of phrase “…when the royal commissioners walked into the House of Lords it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper.” and so Parliament had not in fact been prorogued. The session resumed and the two speakers recalled their respective houses the next day.
After the passage of some further major legislation (further delaying Brexit to 31st January 2020*), Parliament was again prorogued, but only for the standard six days, with the speech still taking place on 14th October as planned. Hale recalled that she and the other justices “went along in our finery to hear it, knowing full well that there was likely to be a general election and another Queen’s Speech before the year was out, and so it turned out to be. I felt very sorry for Her Majesty. She could so easily have been spared it all if it had been clear from the outset that that was the plan.”
Now Hale has five reflections:
- If there had been no case, then the legal position would have been the same but “noone would have been any the wiser” without a court to decide it. We need people to bring forward cases when fundamental constitutional principles are involved, even if their personal motivations for doing so are less high-minded.
- If the Prime Minister had filed an affidavit saying that he needed a realistic threat of exiting without a deal and Parliament was determined to thwart him, therefore it was necessary to suspend legislative activity, then the case would have been more complicated as it would constitute a justification whose reasonableness the court would have to assess, clearly a more political decision.
- Some say it would have been better for the ruling not to have been unanimous, as the inclusion of dissenting opinions would have allowed the public to see how the government’s arguments were acknowledged but refuted. Hale regrets that due to the time pressure it was not possible to rehearse them at length, but insists it was still quite clear what they were. In her view the unanimity of all eleven justices has more power than a split decision would have.
- Public approval of the ruling was strongly correlated with support for remaining in the European Union, but not absolutely. She remembers widespread wearing of the spider brooches and t-shirts by people whose views on Brexit she could not know. Indeed, she does not know how her fellow justices voted in the referendum or in general elections. Public attitudes are not always irrelevant, but a question of high constitutional principle cannot be decided in accordance with public opinion on something completely different.
- Some say the whole effort was for nothing as the government swiftly won a large majority. Hale disagrees, citing other cases (including Miller in 2016) where a defeat of the government’s prerogative was soon followed by statutory authorisation, but insisting that they all affirmed important constitutional principles regarding the rule of law and the prevention of tyranny.
The baroness’s presentation concluded to as much applause as the software would allow. Matthew Humphreys, Head of the School of Law, then initiated a short question period. He began with the perennial question of whether a codified constitution would have made any difference. Hale replied that constitutions tend to say there will be a legislature to make laws, a judiciary to interpret them and a government to run the country. Commonwealth constitutions often say that the government may exercise the powers previously exercised by Royal Prerogative, without telling you exactly what the Royal Prerogative involves, and thus without answering the questions raised in any of the cases studied. She also believes that, whatever the merits of introducing a codified constitution may be, it is surely never going to happen. Written constitutions tend to be the product either of revolution or of decolonisation. A country with neither of those factors would have little inclination to introduce such a document, and in any case Parliament would not want to limit its own power – as tends to be the point of a codified constitution – especially by allowing the courts to strike down its acts.
I asked the next question: “Had the European Union (Withdrawal) No. 2 Act received Royal Assent at prorogation rather than separately hours earlier, would the “blank sheet of paper” ruling have annulled it in the same manner as it was deemed to have done for the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration & Renewal) Act?”
Her response: “That would require some further research to even reach a tentative view on what the right answer is. We were not considering whether the Royal Assents given at the same time were affected by the “blank sheet of paper”. Off the top of my head it sounds quite unsurprising that they would be, but in any event it wouldn’t have made any difference because we would have had to have reached the conclusion that we did. The fact that the Withdrawal No. 2 Bill received Royal Assent by a different route obviously meant that it wasn’t affected but it wouldn’t have mattered that much if it had been affected because obviously Royal Assent could have been given when Parliament resumed, so these are technicalities which are of extreme interest to aficionados of Parliamentary procedure but they don’t actually affect the principles involved.”
The next question, by Mohammad Sabuj, was “Were there any restrictions in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court that justices face in the judicial review as opposed to an appeal in this matter? Had an appeal been brought, would that make the decision of the Supreme Court more authoritative?”
Her response: “In both cases we were dealing with judicial review and we were hearing an appeal from a judicial review. The way to challenge the validity of governmental actions in the absence of a statutory right of appeal from that action is by judicial review, so there’s no problem with judicial review – that’s the way to do it. There are certain government actions for which there is a statutory right of appeal but prorogation of course is not one of them.”
The Lord McNally asked: “You said in your remarks about the eleven hard-working justices who made the decision “They are not as diverse as I would like.” How do we make our judiciary more diverse?” He acknowledged having previously asked her that same question back when he was the minister for judicial diversity and “failed totally in achieving anything”.
Her response: “A great deal of progress has been made during this century since we have had the Judicial Appointments Commission and an open, transparent, merit-based process for appointing judges. The gender diversity in the judiciary has improved very considerably. It’s still not as it should be but it’s doing very well. Ethnic diversity is a much more complex problem because the barriers and obstacles to success in the legal profession are different for different ethnic groups and so achieving a proper balance is going to be more complicated. Then there are other dimensions of diversity that are even more challenging, one of which is educational and socioeconomic background. I could bang on about this for quite a long time, but I’d like us to be encouraged by the fact that we do now have a system which is committed to trying to make things better and the good news is that in the tribunals judiciary the gender and ethnic balance is not far short of of what it is in the working population of the comparable age group, which is a great achievement and if it can be done for the tribunals judiciary it can in due course be done for the courts too. Don’t be too downhearted Lord McNally. You didn’t have a silver bullet, there is no silver bullet, but nevertheless progress is being made.”
A.G. Latham asked: “The requirement that the length of prorogation must be justified by adequate reason sounds rather like the proportionality requirement in other words. Would you accept that characterisation of it, and do you think this this will prove to be potentially relevant in other areas?”
She replied: “There are no doubt theses being written as we speak about whether the concept of proportionality is gradually taking over from the concept of irrationality or mens rea unreasonableness in the context of judicial review of governmental action generally, because there are one or two hints in one or two cases that we might move by inaction, but we certainly haven’t got there yet and the cases where we have addressed the problem directly – The Malayan Massacre Case – it was expressly rejected so I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, but the point about the case that we had was that we didn’t really have to think very hard about what might or might not be a reasonable justification. That’s why I raised the question about what if the evidence had been different, because there was very clearly no evidence of any reasonable justification for anything other than a four or five day prorogation in preparation for the Queen’s Speech on 14th October. When you’ve not got anything you don’t have to worry about what might be justification. Somehow I doubt whether the problem’s going to arise again, but if it does of course my successors will have to wrestle with it.”
Paul Evans said: “I was provoked by your reference to the Bill of Rights earlier. You mentioned William & Mary’s acceptance of it when they took the throne and you talked about the unlikelihood of a written constitution”. His audio then failed, but Humphreys guessed that the question would have been “Could Parliament repeal the Bill of Rights?”
Hale replied: “If Parliament repealed the Bill of Rights, would it actually nevertheless retain the concept of the sovereignty of Parliament which was cemented by the Bill of Rights? In theory Parliament can unmake any law, but if they unmade the Bill of Rights I think it’s a very interesting question as to whether the courts could nevertheless say that the principle that Parliament could make or unmake any law remained extant, because that was the result of the revolutionary settlement – and it was a revolutionary settlement – in 1688. That’s another nice one for my successors, but I don’t think you’re going to have it happen so maybe you won’t have to decide it.”
*Hale repeatedly said “31st December” instead, perhaps confusing Brexit itself with the end of the transition period.