Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Lord Chancellor’s Oath and the Rule of Law

Robert Neill Excerpts
Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Twigg, and to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I have great respect for her as a lawyer; we do not always agree in our political views, but I take seriously what she says on legal matters. I ought to mention my interests as a non-practising member of the English Bar, as a consultant to a law firm and as a bencher of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. I will start with the topic of the debate: the Lord Chancellor’s oath. The hon. and learned Lady ranged widely in her speech, and I am sure she will forgive me if I do not follow some particular matters that she understandably raised relating to the constitutional settlement and devolution.

The irony of this debate is that the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 does indeed place the Lord Chancellor in a different position from that of other Ministers, both because of the oath and because of their obligation under section 17(1) of the 2005 Act to respect the rule of law and defend the independence of the judiciary. Ironically, the Blair Government in 2005 never actually defined the rule of law in the Act. The late Lord Bingham, who has been much quoted already in this debate and probably will be again, noted that that was interesting and rather unusual, as it placed great reliance on a concept that was set out in statute but never defined. That, he concluded, clearly was not an accident; it was clearly because it was probably impossible, if not unhelpful, to find a pithy statutory definition that could be put in an Act of Parliament of something that has evolved over time. His conclusion in his admirable book, which I brought along this morning, is that it was desirable to leave the matter to be decided—as courts might need to, from time to time—in the practical, rather than purely in the abstract, as issues arose. That, perhaps, is wise.

That means that it was wrong for some in recent weeks, since the arrival of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, to make rather unjustified ad hominem attacks on the current Lord Chancellor—first, on his conduct throughout, and secondly, in making an assertion that the rule of law is potentially breached. An assertion is, of course, no more than that, and a legal argument, however distinguished, be it made by academic or legal commentators, is no more than that either. I have known the Lord Chancellor for his whole professional career, and the reality is that he is absolutely rooted in his commitment to the rule of law and to the profession, as he made clear when he took his oath and repeatedly since. I will come to part 5 of the Bill in a moment, about which my views are well known. However, I believe and am satisfied that the Lord Chancellor has acted diligently throughout all this to ensure that we deal with a potentially difficult situation proportionately and consistent with our obligations.

Since taking, the Lord Chancellor has also been clear in his support for the independence and integrity of the judiciary. Not all his predecessors in recent years have been; I say that frankly. There are people in all jurisdictions that we might wish to brush over, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West put it. For every Lord Rich there is a Lord Braxfield, perhaps, and others who we might not wish to dwell upon. The reality is that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), has been meticulous in this. I welcome his clear commitment in his letter to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to the Government’s continuing support for the provisions of the European convention on human rights. He has been willing to be outspoken on that.

Reference was made to the risk to the rule of law being undermined by the Government’s proposals to examine the scope of judicial review. When I started my law degree at the London School of Economics—which was, I hate to say, in the early 1970s—judicial review was a very new and evolving legal concept. There was little of it in those days. It grew, as many of us will remember, through the Gouriet judgment, the Grunwick case and so on, and perhaps rightly so. There has never been a fixed corpus of law in this area, as there is in others, such as jury trial. There is nothing wrong in that; the advantage of the common-law system is that it can evolve.

No one would seriously say that, prior to the development of the current system of judicial review in, let us say, the 1970s through to the beginning of this century, Britain was not a country that was subject to the rule of law. A willingness to review the way in which judicial review as a concept operates, and what are or are not the proper limits, cannot be regarded as an assault on the rule of law per se, on any objective basis.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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I take that on board, but the difficulty is that the individual who has been put in charge of the review has evinced very strong criticisms of the Supreme Court’s decision in the prorogation cases and has also evinced hostility to the European convention on human rights, notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has already said. There is a widespread perception in the legal profession that what is intended here is to circumscribe the rule of law, not just because Lord Faulks is the chair but because of the Government’s rhetoric. Surely the hon. Gentleman must see that.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
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Lord Faulks is a fellow bencher of the Middle Temple and a distinguished lawyer. That does not mean that one always has to agree with everything that he says. It would not be fair or reasonable to judge somebody by past comments until we have seen the results of the panel as a whole. Lord Faulks is the chair of the panel, but there are other very distinguished people on it as well. I respect what the hon. and learned Lady says, but this is a classic case of not prejudging the issue until we have seen the outcome of the deliberations.

I am a great believer in judicial review, in appropriate cases. Has it sometimes been abused? Many people would say that perhaps that can be the case. When I was the junior Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, I was critical of the attitude adopted to some decisions by the then Secretary of State, the noble Lord Pickles, is he is now, in relation to the removal of regional spatial strategies. We were judicially reviewed by large commercial housebuilders, undoubtedly in pursuit of their own vested commercial interests. They sought to prevent our removing the comparatively easy route, so they could impose large housing developments on communities that did not want them. I was critical of those house builders for doing that and for undermining in law the wishes of local residents. The courts found that they were entitled to do it, but that does not mean that we were assaulting judicial review as a concept, simply by criticising the motive behind some of the people who bring it.

There is an important distinction, which I recognise. We criticised the clients—the people who brought the judicial review—but I did not criticise the lawyers who were instructed on their behalf. I would not seek to do so. It is important to say that we should not, whatever our views in politics, use political arguments to attack lawyers generally or by taking broadbrush approaches. The attacks upon the judges, which were not perhaps called out as much as they should have been at the time of the early Miller litigation, were wholly disgraceful and unacceptable. The current Lord Chancellor has made it clear that he would not countenance such attacks and such language without speaking out. That is very much to his credit and entirely consistent with his own personal integrity. I do not care for the use of language such as “lefty lawyers” or the broadbrush approach of saying that systems are being hijacked. That is not language that I would use. However, I am a Member of Parliament; I am not a speech writer.

I gently observe that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West referred to the taxi rank principle at the Bar. That is something that I have always worked under as well. To be fair, there have always been sets of chambers that would not prosecute, or would not act for landlords, for example. Some might ask whether that is in theory inconsistent with the taxi rank rule. It probably is, yet it is not something that warrants a great deal of personal attack. I just make the observation that those matters cannot be seen in a purely academic sense. I would not make too much of that, but that is where I stand as far as that is concerned. It is pretty clear where the Lord Chancellor stands, and where I suspect my hon. Friend the Minister stands as well, as far as those matters are concerned.

The other issue raised is part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, about which I was not a little critical when it was first introduced. I believe we have sought to improve that Bill. Is it perfect? As yet, that I do not know. Would the use of the powers in part 5 be wise politics? That is a very big question mark. However, that is not the same as, say, that it is per se constitutionally improper to put those clauses in the Bill, provided there are appropriate safeguards. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West might disagree upon that, but I think it is a legitimate area of legal dispute and the Lord Chancellor is entitled to have a different view from her and, indeed, perhaps from me in that regard, without it being suggested that he has failed to uphold his oath of office or his constitutional obligations.

I note the views, which have been referred to, of Professor Catherine Barnard. She is a distinguished academic and her views are worthy of respect. By their nature, however, she not being a judge or legislator, and valuable and worthy of respect though they are, they cannot be determinative of the point. It is one side of an argument that can properly be hooked. If, on those matters, there were no scope for difference of opinion, no scope for difference of legal interpretation, no scope for legal argument, there would scarcely be any scope for litigation and scarcely any scope for lawyers at the end of the day. It is perfectly possible for respectable lawyers to hold different opinions around matters of this kind, particularly in emerging areas of law or new legislation as it comes forward, without it being appropriate for us to say that either side is seeking to undermine constitutional principles or their professional or governmental responsibilities. That is the proper way to look at the position, as far as that is concerned here.

I am glad to say, in response to some of the endeavours, which I may have had a small hand in, the Government have made it clear that, effectively, they will only be using those powers should they ever be needed. I hope to heavens that they are never needed because we will get a deal, but should that be the case, there will be certain triggers that would have to be met, both in procedural terms but also in terms of substance. In particular, we would only do so had the European Union, in our judgment, demonstrated bad faith. Bad faith is recognised in international treaty law and in the Vienna convention as being a ground under which it is possible to derogate from an otherwise binding commitment.

The fact that we will be using this as a shield rather than a sword is important—it is the doctrine of equitable estoppel, in some respects. The Minister may well have more to say about that, but that is an important shift and one that I welcome. Therefore, the suggestion that the mere putting of those clauses on the face of the legislation is itself a breach of law is not one that is universally accepted, and I do not think therefore that it can be regarded as an act of impropriety on the part of the Government or of any Minister. As I say, there is a proper political debate as to the wisdom of using them, if we ever come to that, but that is not for today.

I want to say one final thing in relation to this. Lord Bingham was very clear that the rule of law itself is something that can evolve and must be flexible, but there are certain fundamentals. I do not think anyone would suggest that anything we are doing here alters the basic fundamentals. I am conscious of his eighth principle, but I do not think we are at that stage, and I hope we will not be. Moreover, he accepted that parliamentary sovereignty was a fundamental part of the rule of law too. There is always a set of checks and balances in that regard.

I have no problem with certain circumstances where the actions of Ministers properly should be reviewed by the courts, but I do not think this is really going to change that. Lord Bingham made it quite clear, though, that he did not accept the view advanced by, for example, Lord Steyn or Baroness Hale of Richmond that there are some concepts so fundamental that even Parliament cannot legislate to change them. He did not take that view. Again, there is a perfectly respectable dispute there and disagreement between highly distinguished former jurists, which makes the point that none of the arguments powerfully advanced by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West are determinative of any failing by either the Lord Chancellor or any other Minister in respect of their constitutional obligations.

This is a worthwhile debate to have. In a sense, an hour and a half is not enough to do it justice, because as we go forward, we are going to have to think about our constitutional and legal settlements in a broader sense, how we will operate the separation of powers in a post-Brexit world and how, continuing, as I hope, as a unified state with devolution within it, we can perhaps refine the arrangements that are required to make that work in practice too. Those are all proper matters for further consideration, but do not, I think, impinge upon any proper allegation of any failure by the current Lord Chancellor or his Ministers to act in accordance with their constitutional duties.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Before I call Rob Butler, I remind him that I intend to take the Front-Bench speakers around 10.40 am, so if he could keep his speech to around six minutes, so that the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) can get in, I would be very grateful.