Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law

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Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Alex Chalk Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and to respond to a debate back here in Westminster Hall. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on securing the debate and thank her for her wide-ranging but tightly-argued important representations. I have 12 minutes to respond to her points, which were made quite properly at greater length, and I hope she will forgive me if I am unable to touch on every point she raised.

As its title indicates, this debate focuses on the Lord Chancellor’s oath and the rule of law. It is important to note a point that will not be lost on the people in this Chamber, but which bears emphasis: the role of the Lord Chancellor is different from that of the Law Officers who provide legal advice to the Government and assist them to find lawful and proper ways to achieve policy objectives. The Lord Chancellor does not provide legal advice to the Government of the day. His duties, while very important in their own right, are different.

The Lord Chancellor’s oath, as we have heard, was set out in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which preserved the principle of the “rule of law”, and as the hon. and learned Lady has already stated, it continues:

“I will respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible.”

As is immediately apparently, the Act does not define specifically the constitutional duty in respect of the rule of law. To say there are arguments might be overstating it, but there are certainly differences of emphasis about the scope and content. The 2014 report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which has been referred to, discussed this very issue of scope. Interestingly, it was Dominic Grieve who said in his evidence that the duty was

“currently considered to relate to his or her department, rather than an overarching guardianship role”.

However, as the hon. and learned Lady said, Lord Falconer took an entirely different view, and the Committee overruled and thought that it was wider.

The Cabinet manual is silent on this particular topic. It refers to the role of the Law Officers in

“helping ministers to act lawfully and in accordance with the rule of law”,

but it makes no mention of the Lord Chancellor’s duty in that respect.

One thing that is tolerably plain is that the role has evolved since the judicial roles fell away. As the report noted in paragraph 63, because of those changes,

“the roles of other individuals and institutions have taken on a greater importance in this respect.”

None of this is in any way to downplay the role of the Lord Chancellor, which remains very important, but that role has to be set in a wider context.

So, that is about the scope.

What about the content? The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the distinguished Chairman of the Justice Committee, have referred to Lord Tom Bingham’s magisterial work, “The rule of law”, in which he identified the core principle of the rule of law as being

“that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly and prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts.”

As the hon. and learned Lady said, Lord Bingham went on to outline eight principles; we have heard reference to the eighth today. It is also correct to say that other formulations exist; for example, Professor Lon Fuller wrote a distinguished treatise on the authority of law.

Even if lawyers debate its precise parameters, the expression “the rule of law” is generally accepted to include the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and upheld. It is important that we do not disappear down a rabbit hole on this. The expression is apt to include: one, equality before the law, which is the point that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) powerfully made; two, access to independent and impartial justice; and, three, a Government subject to the law, which is a point I will return to. These principles are indeed the bedrock of the freedoms and protections we enjoy in a modern and mature democracy. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West is a lawyer, the right hon. Member for Tottenham is a lawyer, and so is the Chairman of the Justice Committee. I recognise that lawyers play an important role in upholding those principles. As we know in this Chamber, lawyers have a primary duty, indeed an overarching duty, to the court. Thereafter, they are obliged to fight their client’s corner without fear or favour, and that means doing their best within the law to defend their clients’ interests, and doing so whether or not they agree with the substance of the claim, or indeed the matter.

The Lord Chancellor made comments that particularly resonated with me in his Temple speech at the opening of the legal year earlier this very month. He said that

“it is wholly wrong for any professional to be threatened, harassed or worse, attacked simply for doing their job—we must call it out and deal with it. And make the point that those who attack people providing a professional service will be subject to that very same Rule of Law.”

I entirely agree with that.

Of course, the rule of law is not a purely British notion, although we might like to be proprietorial about it. Students of history will remember that the future President of the United States, John Adams, famously took on the role of defending British soldiers accused of the Boston massacre at the end of the 18th century. It was a deeply unpopular thing for him to do personally, but he was absolutely right to do it.

Let me turn now to the principles that I have rehearsed. The first is equality before the law. Let me take the opportunity to restate the Lord Chancellor’s commitment to our long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and that our international human rights obligations are fulfilled. This was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West as regards Northern Ireland. As the Lord Chancellor set out in his letter to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights:

“The UK remains committed to the convention”—

that is, the European convention on human rights—

“and will continue to abide…by our obligations under it.”

After all, and I am sure that we all know this, it was a Scots Conservative lawyer, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who played a central role in the formulation of the first draft of the convention after the horrors of the second world war.

The important point that I want to make is that the convention contains a number of rights, not all of which I will restate here. One of them, of course, is article 14, which determines that

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

That matters, because it is relevant to article 6, which for lawyers is perhaps the pre-eminent article in the convention—I suppose that the right to life is quite important as well—and that is the right to a fair trial. Our courts must do justice and uphold the fairness of proceedings without discrimination. The Lord Chancellor himself is very conscious of that, and I pause to note that he has himself sat as a recorder of the Crown Court.

My second point—I will speed up—is about access to independent and impartial justice. An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of our constitution and democracy. Our judges are selected following a rigorous, independent, merits-based process, which is key to maintaining the quality, integrity and independence of the judiciary. Our constitution recognises that. A point that is sometimes lost is that judges of the High Court and above cannot be removed from office without an address passed by both Houses of Parliament. Judges are also largely immune from the risk of being sued or prosecuted for what they do in their capacity as a judge. They also benefit from immunity from being sued for defamation for the things they say about parties or witnesses in the course of hearing cases. They can and must dispense justice fearlessly, without fear or favour. They do that magnificently well, and we are extremely fortunate to have them. The protections exist for a good reason, and the Lord Chancellor jealously guards them.

The Government are subject to the law. In his speech earlier this month—the one at Temple Church at the opening of the legal year, to which I referred—the Lord Chancellor said:

“Sometimes a lawyer will find the argument they advance to be at odds with the Government of the day—but it frankly is a strength of our mature democracy underpinned by the Rule of Law that such debates can occur.”

Reform, which I accept that the right hon. Member for Tottenham takes issue with, is not, we would submit, automatically to be rejected. Many arrangements can benefit from a considered examination, and the Chair of the Select Committee made that point particularly powerfully. The independent—I stress the word “independent”—review of administrative law endeavours to look at that, but let me say this: the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater. Judicial review is at the heart of the rule of law in this country. It allows citizens to challenge the Government and other public bodies. The Lord Chancellor is clear that the Government need to be challenged.

I listened to the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West about the panel to which she referred, which had a former Supreme Court judge, Dominic Grieve, Lord Howard and others—including Jessica Simor, I think. Reference was made to ouster clauses, and I want to make the point that there is nothing in the relevant sections that seeks to ouster completely judicial review. Indeed, if a challenge were brought on the basis of procedural impropriety or all the other familiar grounds, those are not ousted. It is important to keep those concerns in proper context.

On the provision of resources, I know the Lord Chancellor is personally committed to supporting the courts through this pandemic. I mention that because it is part of his oath—adequate resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) was absolutely right. People seem not to have picked up this point, but the magistrates courts are doing an incredible job. Since the end of July, disposals have exceeded receipts, and that is to their great credit. We accept that it is much more difficult in the Crown court, but the boost that has gone into increasing the amount of technology in the system, and indeed the maintenance budget, is very welcome. It replicates a tripling of funding. We are making progress across all jurisdictions. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, even if the current volume of cases is not, and it could be necessary to look to further creative solutions in the future.

I shall turn to UKIM in the minute that I have left available to me. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West is right: Catherine Barnard did say that the very existence of the Bill is a breach of duty of good faith. She said there is a strong argument to that effect, but, respectfully, there are strong arguments in all sorts of directions. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, that is not of itself dispositive.

Before turning to part 5 of the Bill, let me state in general terms that the Bill has been designed to offer businesses the certainty they need and to protect trade and jobs in every part of the UK. I do not accept for a moment that it undermines the devolved settlement, notwithstanding the powerful points that were made. When the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West mentioned Donald Dewar, I pause to recall that, yes, he is sometimes referred to as the “father of the nation”. However, I remember his son saying of his father, with great power, in a 2014 article in the Daily Record:

“If he was with us today, dad would be an eloquent and passionate campaigner for Scotland to keep her place within the union.”

I hope the hon. and learned Lady will forgive me for making that point. The key point about part 5 of the Bill was set out by the Government on 17 September. It would be used

“only in the case of, in our view, the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Let me close by thanking the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West for securing this important debate. On a personal note, I am very pleased that the Lord Chancellor is in post. He has practised as a lawyer and served as a recorder, and he understands the law’s central role in a fair, free and ordered society. The rule of law matters, and the Lord Chancellor has an unshakeable commitment to uphold it.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Joanna Cherry, you have nine seconds.