Constitutions and court-packing

16th April 2021

Over in the United States there is a discussion about ‘court-packing’.

In particular, the question is about the new president should seek to nominate additional justices to the supreme court.

Some liberals and progressives are aggrieved at the current composition of the court.

A number of justices were nominated by Republican presidents who had not won a majority of the popular vote.

The Republican majority in the senate delayed one vote on a nomination and then rushed through another, with no regard to political consistency.

From a liberal and progressive perspective, these grievances are well-made.

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But.

From a constitutionalist perspective, there was nothing unconstitutional in a (Republican) president nominating new justices and a (Republican) senate deciding when to have the votes.

Both the delayed vote and the rushed confirmation were politically distasteful and discrediting.

But they were not unconstitutional.

Conservatives, however, should not take too much heart from this – as there is also nothing inherently unconstitutional about a president seeking to add justices.

This is because the constitution (though not federal legislation) is silent on the maximum number of supreme court justices.

If the Republican shenanigans about the appointment of supreme court justices was within the scope of the constitution, so may be any attempt to add new justices.

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A more fundamental question is about the role of the supreme court.

On the issue of abortion, for example, liberals and progressives have long depended on supreme court jurisprudence, especially Roe v Wade.

Yet it would be better and more sustainable to have fundamental rights sets out in legislation, rather than on the fragile basis of supreme court decisions.

A conservative majority on the supreme court is only as illiberal as the questions that will come before it.

If liberal and progressive policies are promoted and implemented by the route of legislation rather than litigation, then a conservative majority on the supreme court is less of a concern.

Liberal and progressive policies are always better secured by means of legislation rather than by court rulings.

***

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The judges are only the ‘enemies of the people’ when it suits the government

14th April 2021

For the government. and its political and media supporters, the judiciary are the ‘enemies of the people’.

The view is that that it is no business of activist judges to interfere with what ‘the people’ want.

It is a view that led the London government to oppose the supreme court determining the two Miller cases.

It is also a view that informs the current attempts by the government to limit judicial review and the scope of the human rights act – to the claps and cheers of many who (frankly) should know better.

But it is a shallow view, adopted out of convenience and partisanship.

For, when the political boot is on a different constitutional foot, the government suddenly values an independent judiciary being able to assess the constitutional propriety of a measure:

See Joshua Rozenburg’s detailed piece here.

Also note the response of the London government’s former chief legal official:

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From a political perspective, this referral prompts mixed feelings.

My political view is that a Scottish parliament can and should be co-equal with the Westminster parliament – as the legislatures in Canada and Australia are, even if nominally under the same head of state.

As such, it is frustrating to see the emphatically supported view of the Scottish parliament potentially stymied in this way.

But a political view is not always the same as a constitutionalist perspective.

And under the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, this is a question that can be referred to the supreme court – and as such there is nothing unconstitutional about the London government doing so.

(Whether those should be the constitutional arrangements is a different question.)

It is sheer hypocrisy – and there is not other word – for the London government, and its political and media supporters, to pick-and-choose when the supreme court gets to determine constitutional questions.

Either the supreme court is a constitutional court or it is not a constitutional court.

And it should not be regarded as only a constitutional court when the London government wants to face down Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast.

A constitutional court is not and should not be regarded as an imperial court.

***

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Now there are worrying calls for restricting the franchise

7th April 2021

Over at the American site National Review there is a call – in all seriousness – for the franchise to be restricted.

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(‘Don’t give oxygen to such things,’ demand those unaware that ‘not giving oxygen’ to Trumpism and Brexit did nothing to stop the rise of such notions – but this is a law and policy blog and it exists to offer comment on such developments.)

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The contention at the National Review moves from the fact that as there are certain restrictions on voters – for example, felons – to urging that there should be other restrictions.

The entire piece is a practical exercise in political sophistry.

Yet it was commissioned for and published on a well-known website.

It is an attempt to re-open debates that one would have thought were long settled.

It is nothing less than an effort to re-impose Jim Crow type voting restrictions.

It is a dangerous development.

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This law and policy blog is written from a liberal rather than a democratic perspective.

That is say that there are certain things – such as fundamental human rights – that should not be subject to votes.

Even if a majority of people supported the torture of one human being, that torture would still be absolutely wrong.

Such a liberal perspective is alert to and wary of the consequences of populism and demagogues and majoritarianism.

Democracy can be illiberal – and just because a thing has a democratic mandate, it would not make a thing that is fundamentally illiberal right and proper.

But.

When things are subject to democratic oversight and control, then the votes should be equal and the franchise as universal as possible, and there should not be ‘super-voters’ with more democratic power than others.

In the United Kingdom, it actually used to be the case that such privileged voters did exist – those with more of a ‘stake’ in the community would/should have a better chance of a vote – and these were bog-standard arguments in the lead up to the 1832 reform act.

In the United States, such arguments were used to in effect disenfranchise slaves and those descended from slaves.

The anti-democratic arguments now being put forward have not really been put forward so earnestly and with such force since the 1800s.

It is almost as if the ‘march of democracy’ has not only halted but is now retreating – a corrective to the simple notion of linear political progress.

Authoritarianism and anti-democracy, like illiberalism, has never really gone away – it just was not so prominent for a while, at least in the United Kingdom – making liberals and progressives complacent.

Perhaps such anti-democratic views are just a blip – and we will carry on heading towards the right side of history.

Or perhaps there is no natural line of political progression – and every generation has to win the arguments for liberalism and democracy afresh.

The post-2016 anti-democratic, illiberal turn is not over yet.

Brace, brace.

***

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Parliament is an event and an institution – but not a building

5th April 2021

Restoring the palace of Westminster is proving to be rather expensive.

This news prompts a thought about what is – actually – a parliament.

I happen to be a (non-militant) atheist but I have friends who are Christians who will say that a church is not a building but the people – and that a church can exists just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.

A similar approach can be adopted to parliament.

The great historian of the Stuart period Conrad Russell averred that the parliaments of the seventeenth century were an event not an institution.

And this goes to the word itself – a parliament is where people, well parley.

As such, it can take place anywhere – and indeed parliaments have been held away from Westminster.

And parliaments have been held in different parts of Westminster.

It is only by sheer familiarity that we identify a parliament with a particular building.

But there is no constitutional reason why parliament has to sit in Westminster.

For example, take for example the preamble of an act of parliament:

‘Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—’

There is nothing in that introductory text which provides that the lords and the commons have to be sitting and voting in parliament.

(And, if you read the text carefully, you will also see there is nothing that says peers and commons need to have voted separately on the bill.)

So, just like a church, there is nothing which would ultimately stop a parliament meeting just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.

It is, however, a measure of the sheer pressure of those dollops of Victorian nostalgia and surviving procedure on our political imagination that it is almost impossible to conceive of a parliament sitting anywhere else than that neo-gothic pile just by the Thames.

And it certainly seems beyond the political imagination of some members of parliament to conceive of their constitutional role and duties being capable of performance and discharge other than in the palace of Westminster.

Four hundred years later, it has to be be conceded that parliament now is an institution rather than just an event – but it still an institution that can manifest in a number of places and in a number of ways.

And not just in the palace of Westminster.

That so few parliamentarians can see that parliament is what one does, rather than where one is, is a cost to the rest of us of more than twelve billion pounds.

It is the cost of our parliamentarians confusing what they do for where they are.

If parliamentarians took parliament seriously, it would not matter where the parliament sat, as long as it could perform its role and discharge its duties.

Our constitution is in great part a creaking Victorian dysfunctional monstrosity – there is no need for parliamentarians to meet in one too.

***

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Time for a peer review – why focusing on just fixing the problem of hereditary peers would not be enough

22nd June 2021

The Sunday Times this weekend did a good piece of journalism on the hereditary peers in the house of lords.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well – certainly not this blog, in principle.

Removal of the hereditary element in the house of lords is one of many ‘micro’ reforms of the constitution of the United Kingdom which should be done – regardless of the interminable ‘debate’ on the merits of a codified constitution.

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Yet.

Here are some things to think about as you nod-along.

There are other (perhaps even worse) problems with the composition of the house of lords: the power of patronage of party leaders – especially the prime minister, the rights of bishops of just one denomination of one church to have twenty-six votes, the number of life peers who do not take any active role but can be summoned to vote, and so on.

And contrary to the impression given by the headline of that piece: ninety of the ninety-two hereditary peers sitting in the house of lords do not have automatic seats – they are elected by the hereditary peers generally.

This means, somewhat paradoxically, they are the only members of the house of lords that are there by means of any sort of electoral process.

They are also free from any allegiance to any party manager or any debt arising from an act of patronage.

In other words: they are part of the legislature outside the control of the government or party leaders.

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But.

Whatever the case that can be made for hereditary peers in the house of lords, they still need to go – and sooner rather than later.

Some constitutional abominations are too awful to be tolerated.

And removing the hereditary peers would also make the house of lords more, shall we say, ‘legitimate’ in its constitutional role.

(And can we please get rid of all the mock-chivalric-pseudo-feudal-medieval titles while we are at it – if you really want to be a lord or lady of something, join a historical enactment society.)

All that said: there should not be the removal of one of the genuinely independent features of the house of lords without regard to the overall balance.

There is little to be gained from clapping and cheering the removal of the hereditary peers if the effect would be to tilt the balance of the house of the lords towards more governmental control.

For, as the constitution of the United Kingdom currently stands, the house of lords is the most effective check and balance to a house of commons dominated by the government.

The house of lords cannot block any legislation – and nor should it, as it does not have any democratic basis – but it can force the house of commons to think again and more carefully about its legislative proposals.

And often the reasoned amendments of the house of lords are accepted by the house of commons – and, indeed, often the house of lords amendments can provide convenient cover to ministers who eventually realise that the initial proposals were unsound.

Given that the most important constitutional function of the house of lords is that of a check and a balance – rather than to be a chamber with a rival democratic basis – then the most important quality is that it should be independent.

Stripping out one feature that provides any independence in the upper chamber should thereby be matched by other measures to maintain that independence.

That is why there should be a more general (ahem) peer review.

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And luckily, there has actually been a useful review.

The Burns report of 2017 puts forward sensible and persuasive proposals for reforming the composition of the house of lords while keeping its independent constitutional role.

The key proposals are to limit the size of the upper chamber and to convert lifetime membership (of the life peers) to a single term of fifteen years.

That report, however, did not make direct proposals for the hereditary peers and bishops.

But, in principle, there is no reason why such a reform could not also mean the removal of the hereditary and spiritual peers – as the overriding objective of a balanced upper chamber outside the domination of any government of the day would be retained.

So – yes, nod-along with the attack on the hereditary elements and, also yes, let’s get rid of them – but when the nodding-along ends, let us also make sure we have not ended up with a less independent upper house in our current constitutional arrangements.

***

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Clause 59 and ‘TwitterJokeTrial’ – a warning from history

Spring Equinox, 2021

 

Some of those defending clause 59 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, Courts and Anything Else the Government Can Get Away With Bill point out that one purpose of the provision is to set out in statute the old common law offence of public nuisance.

The view is that the enactment is merely an exercise in modernisation and simplification – that there is nothing for us to worry our heads about.

And as this blog has already explained, part of the origin of the proposal is a Law Commission report from 2015.

But.

There is a law more powerful than any statute or common law right, more powerful even than any great charter.

And that is the law of unintended consequences.

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Here is a story.

There was once an obscure provision in the Post Office (Amendment Act) 1935 that, in turn, amended the Post Office Act 1908:

And for seventy years the offence was hardly noticed, though it was reenacted from time to time as telecommunications legislation was, ahem, modernised and simplified.

Then in 2003 it was reenacted yet again, but in terms that (without any proper consideration) ended up covering the entire internet:

But it was still not really noticed.

Until one day some bright spark at the crown prosecution service realised the provision’s broad terms were a prosecutorial gift in the age of social media.

This resulted in the once-famous TwitterJokeTrial case and its various appeals, which ended with a hearing before the lord chief justice.

In allowing the appeal against conviction, the lord chief justice said:

In other words: the intention of the 2003 reenactment had not been to widen the scope of the offence in respect of fundamental freedoms.

(Declaration of interest: I was the appeal solicitor before the high court in that case.)

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Coming back to clause 59, it may well be that the intended effect of clause 59 is to merely restate the existing law.

Some are convinced by this view: 

But.

What we will have, once enacted, will be an offence – that is, an arrestable and chargeable offence – which, on the face of it is in extraordinary broad terms, using such everyday language as ‘annoyance’.

It may be that the higher courts will, as any appeals come in, apply the technical meaning in property law of ‘annoyance’.

The law in practice is not that (only) of the judgments of the high court and above: it is what police officers and crown prosecution service case workers believe the law to be and see the law as it is set out.

It is also can be what zealous complainants to the police say it to be.

And none of these people will – understandable and perhaps rightly – be well versed in the case law of ‘annoyance’ in respect of the old law of public nuisance.

They will just see an arresting and charging power – and a power to set conditions.

So it should not be left to the courts ‘to apply the old caselaw’.

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Criminal offences – and their limits – need to be clear and precise to everyone involved: citizen, complainant, arresting officer, crown prosecution service case worker, busy junior legal aid solicitor giving advice on plea – as well as to erudite barristers and even more erudite judges.

And so: even taking the point about this being a mere modernisation and simplification at its highest, clause 59 currently contains worryingly wide drafting.

Most people reading clause 59 by itself will believe there is a criminal offence – with a sentence of up to ten years – for causing mere annoyance.

Even if that it not the government’s intention, that is how the current provision can be read.

And because of this, people may suffer the life-changing events of being arrested and being charged – and may even plead guilty.

Unless, of course, that is the government’s real intention.

***

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Whoopsie: the government did not get the commission report on judicial review that it was hoping for

 19th March 2021

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‘Toulouse’s suggestion was not what Audrey wanted to hear.’

– Moulin Rouge

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Sometimes – just sometimes – in the world of law and policy there are moments when welcome things do happen.

Back in August 2020 this blog covered the government’s announcement of an ‘independent panel to look at judicial review’.

It did not seem a promising move: just an attempt by the government to find cover for an assault on judicial review by means of a hand-picked commission.

But.

It is sometimes strange how things turn out.

The commission has now reported – and just a skim of the report shows that the government did not get the report it was hoping for.

In large part, the report appears to be an affirmation of the current position of judicial review – with minor changes that it is hard to feel strongly about.

(A close read of the report may dislodge this happy impression – but that is this blog’s preliminary view.)

The concluding observations of the report could have even be a post on this very blog:

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In receipt of the report, the Ministry of Justice decided that it would try harder to find people to tell them what they wanted to hear.

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‘We want to keep this conversation going.’

We can bet they do.

Like a frustrated news show producer who cannot find any talking-head expert to say the desired things, the Ministry of Justice is now resorting to a Vox Pox.

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At bottom, the problem here is a mismatch, a dislocation – such as those recently discussed on this blog.

The discrepancy is between the heady rhetoric of ‘activist judges’ – a rhetoric that has a life of its own – and the mundane reality of what actually happens in courts.

The commission, to their credit, looked hard and reported on what they saw.

Yet those Ministry of Justice, to their discredit, want to keep on until they are told what they want to hear.

Perhaps the Ministry of Justice will get what they want – and then move to limit judicial review.

One can never be optimistic about law and policy for very long, and the illiberals and authoritarians are relentless.

But this report is a welcome break from the push towards populist authoritarianism in our political and legal affairs.

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For a more detailed account of the just-published report, see Paul Daly’s blogpost here.

***

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The problem of the dislocation between political language and policy substance

17th March 2021

The problem of political language not being tied firmly to particular meanings is not a new one:

‘From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’

Indeed, it is no doubt a problem as old as political discourse itself.

But the fact that it is not a novelty does not make it any less irksome.

And nor does it mean that its instances should be left unremarked.

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Currently there is a severe dislocation between political words and things.

Those ‘free speech warriors’ who decry ‘cancel culture’ often seem at ease with a government putting forward legislation that is capable of prohibiting any form of effective protest.

There are also the ‘classical liberals’ who commend ‘free trade’ who are in support of Brexit, which is the biggest imposition of trade barriers on the United Kingdom in modern history – and has even led to a trade barrier down the Irish Sea.

And there are the champions of the liberties under Magna Carta and of ‘common law rights’ who also somehow support restrictions on access to the court for judicial review applications and sneer at imaginary activist judges.

Like a gear stick that has come loose, there seems no connection between the political phrases and the policy substance.

But the phrases are not meaningless – they still have purchase (else they would not be used).

The phrases are enough to get people to nod-along and to clap and cheer.

It is just that they are nodding-along and clapping and cheering when the actual policies then being adopted and implemented have the opposite effect.

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Can anything be done?

An optimist will aver that mankind can only bear so much unreality – and that people will realise they have been taken in by follies and lies.

That, for example, Americans will realise that politicians who seek support to ‘make American great again’ have made America anything but.

Or that those who said they would ‘get Brexit done’ have instead placed the United Kingdom in a structure where Brexit will be a negotiation without end.

Or there will be a realisation that a government is seeking greater legal protections for statues than for actual human beings.

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A pessimist will see the opposite – that the breakdown of traditional media and political structures (with traditional political parties and newspapers seeming quaint survivors from another age) – means that it will be harder to align words with meanings.

Meaning the dismal prospect of liberals and progressives having to also adopt such insincere approaches so as to counter and defeat the illiberals and authoritarians.

Whatever the solution, it needs to come rather quickly – at least in the United Kingdom – as the current illiberal and authoritarian government is in possession of a large parliamentary majority and is showing itself willing and able to push through illiberal and authoritarian laws and policies.

While pretending to itself and others that it has ‘libertarian instincts’.

And so it may not just be the gear stick which has come loose but also the brakes as well.

Brace, brace.

***

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The European Commission launches legal proceedings against the United Kingdom – a guided tour

 16th March 2021

The European Commission announced yesterday that it had ‘launched legal proceedings’ against the United Kingdom.

What has happened is that a formal legal notice has been sent by the European Commission to the United Kingdom.

To say this is ‘launch[ing] legal proceedings’ is a little dramatic: no claim or action has been filed – yet – at any court or tribunal.

But it is a legally significant move,  and it is the first step of processes that, as we will see below, can end up before both a court and a tribunal.

This blogpost sets out the relevant information in the public domain about this legal move – a guided tour of the relevant law and procedure.

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Let us start with the ‘legal letter’ setting out the legal obligations that the European Commission aver the United Kingdom has breached and the particular evidence for those breaches.

This is an ‘infraction’ notice.

As the European Commission is making some very serious allegations – for example, that the United Kingdom is in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol – then it is important to see exactly what these averred breaches are.

This information would be set out precisely in the infraction letter – informing the ministers and officials of the United Kingdom government of the case that they had to meet in their response.

But.

We are not allowed to see this letter.

Even though the European Commission is making serious public allegations about the United Kingdom being in breach of the politically sensitive Northern Ireland Protocol, it will not tell us the particulars of the alleged breaches.

This is because, I am told, the European Commission does not publish such formal infraction notices.

There is, of course, no good reason for this lack of transparency – especially given what is at stake.

The European Commission should not be able to have the ‘cake’ of making serious infraction allegations without the ‘eating it’ of publishing them.

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And so to work out what the alleged breaches are, we have to look at other, less formal (and thereby less exact) sources.

Here the European Commission have published two things.

First, there is this press release.

Second there is this ‘political letter’ – as distinct from the non-disclosed ‘legal letter’.

What now follows in this blogpost is based primarily on a close reading of these two public documents.

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We start with the heady international law of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.

Article 26 of the Vienna Convention regards the delightful Latin phrase Pacta sunt servanda.

In other words: if you have signed it, you do it.

Agreements must be kept.

You will also see in Article 26 express mention of ‘good faith’.

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We now go to the withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

There at Article 5 you will see that the United Kingdom and the European Union expressly set out their obligation of good faith to each other in respect of this particular agreement:

So whatever ‘good faith’ may or not mean in a given fact situation, there is no doubt that under both Article 26 of the Vienna Convention generally and under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement in particular that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a duty of good faith to each other in respect of their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

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The European Commission not only allege that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligation of good faith but also that the United Kingdom is in breach of specific obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol (which is part of the withdrawal agreement).

The press release says there are ‘breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods and pet travel made applicable by virtue of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’.

The ‘political letter’ says:

So it would appear that the relevant provisions of the withdrawal agreement are Articles 5(3) and (4) of the Northern Ireland and Annex 2 to that protocol.

Here we go first to Annex 2.

This annex lists many provisions of European Union law that continue to have effect in Northern Ireland notwithstanding the departure of the United Kingdom.

Article 5(4) of the protocol incorporates the annex as follows:

‘The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 2 to this Protocol shall also apply, under the conditions set out in that Annex, to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.’

As such a breach of Article 5(4) is a breach of the European Union laws set out in that annex.

Article 5(3) of the protocol is a more complicated provision and it is less clear (at least to me) what the European Commission is saying would be the breach:

My best guess is that the European Commission is here averring that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Union customs code (which is contained in Regulation 952/2013.)

As regards the specific European Union laws set out in Annex 2 that the European Commission also says that the United Kingdom is in breach of, we do not know for certain because of the refusal of the commission to publish the formal infraction notice.

On the basis of information in the press release and the ‘political letter’ it would appear that the problems are set out in these three paragraphs:

Certain keyword searches of Annex 2 indicate which actual laws the European Commission is saying being breached, but in the absence of sight of the formal infraction notice, one could not know for certain.

The reason the detail of what laws are at stake matters is because each instrument of European Union law may have its own provisions in respect of applicability, enforceability and proportionality that could be relevant in the current circumstances.

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So: what next.

Two things – the European Commission is adopting a twin-track, home-and-away approach.

One process will deal with the substantive provisions of European Union law – and the other process will deal with the matter of good faith.

*

In respect of the alleged substantive breaches of European Union law, the European Commission has commenced infraction proceedings – as it would do in respect of any member of the European Union.

As the ‘political letter’ pointedly reminds the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom is still subject to the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union in respect of breaches of European Union law in Northern Ireland.

You thought Brexit meant Brexit?

No: the government of Boris Johnson agreed a withdrawal agreement that kept in place the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union – including infraction proceedings of the European Commission and determinations by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And so in 2021 – five years after the Brexit referendum – the European Commission is launching infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom under Article 258 of the Treaty of Rome:

This means there could well be a hearing before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

One does not know whether this would be more wanted or not wanted by our current hyper-partisan post-Brexit government.

One even half-suspects that they wanted this all along.

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The other track – with the European Commission playing ‘away’ – is in respect of the general ‘good faith’ obligation – as opposed to the substantive European Union law obligations under Annex 2.

Here we are at an early stage.

In particular, we are are at the fluffy ‘cooperation’ stage of Article 167:

If this fails, then the next stage would be a notice under Article 169(1):

Article 169(1) provides that such a formal notice shall ‘commence consultations’.

And if these Article 169 consultations do not succeed, then we go to Article 170:

The arbitration panel – and not the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice – would then determine whether the United Kingdom is in breach of its general obligation of good faith.

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We could therefore end up with two sets of highly controversial proceedings.

The European Commission has intimated the processes for both to take place in due course.

From a legalistic perspective, the European Commission may have a point – depending on what the alleged breaches actually are.

A legal process is there for dealing with legal breaches – that is what a legal process is for.

But.

When something is legally possible, it does not also make it politically sensible.

A wise person chooses their battles.

And if the European Commission presses their cases clumsily, then the legitimacy and durability of the withdrawal framework may be put at risk.

Brace, brace.

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The proposed new clause 59 offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’

15th March 2021

There is currently a bill before parliament that will, among other things, create a new statutory offence of ‘public nuisance’.

This new offence – as currently set out in the bill – is itself causing annoyance and distress.

Why is it being proposed?

And what should parliament do about it?

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Like a lamp in Aladdin – it is a new offence for an old one.

If the new offence is enacted then the current ‘common law’ (that is, non-statutory) offence of public nuisance will be abolished.

The current offence is ill-defined and rarely used – and it has been the subject of 2015 reform proposals from the Law Commission – see here.

(Of course, the fact that the Law Commission proposed reform in 2015 is not the reason why the home office have chosen to propose changes in 2021.)

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On the face of it, reform and simplification are good things.

Who could possibly oppose something as laudable as reform and simplification?

And the Law Commission does have a point – the current law is somewhat vague and archaic.

The current law is usually stated as:

‘A person is guilty of a public nuisance (also known as common nuisance), who (a) does an act not warranted by law, or (b) omits to discharge a legal duty, if the effect of the act or omission is to endanger the life, health, property or comfort of the public, or to obstruct the public in the exercise or enjoyment of rights common to all Her Majesty’s subjects.’

The bill before parliament proposes that old offence to be replaced by this:

As you will see there are elements of the current offence copied over to the new offence – and that although this is an exercise in ‘simplification’ it also happens to be rather longer.

Words like ‘annoyance’ are added.

But the new offence has not plucked the word ‘annoyance’ out of the air: annoyance can be a component of the current offence, and it has featured in case law.

The word ‘annoy’ (and its variants) is mentioned thirty-seven times in the Law Commission report.

The Law Commission summarises their view as (at paragraph 3.12):

‘One question is the nature of the right or interest which public nuisance seeks to protect.  In our view, its proper use is to protect the rights of members of the public to enjoy public spaces and use public rights (such as rights of way) without danger, interference or annoyance.’

Whatever ills can be blamed on the home secretary and the home office, the content of this proposed provision is not entirely of their creation.

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But.

Each and every piece of legislation needs to be scrutinised on its own terms – and neither parliamentarians nor the public should just nod-along because the magic words ‘reform’ and ‘simplification’ are invoked.

Never trust the home office.

And if one looks through clause 59 carefully and trace through how it works, it is potentially a chilling and illiberal provision.

For example (with emphasis added):

A person commits an offence if— (a) the person— (i) does an act […]  [which](b) the person’s act or omission […] (ii) obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large, and (c) the person  […]  is reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence. […]  (2) For the purposes of subsection (1) an act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person […] (c) suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity, or (d) is put at risk of suffering anything mentioned […].

The offence is thereby made out not if a person is caused ‘serious annoyance’ but only if there is a ‘risk’ of them suffering it.

And there does not need need to be any directed intention – mere recklessness will suffice.

The maximum sentence for simply putting someone ‘at risk of suffering’ serious annoyance is imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

Of course, maximum sentences are maximum sentences, and in practice the penalties will be lower.

Yet, the creation of such an offence in these terms will have a knock-on effects on the powers of police to arrest and to set conditions.

And it is in the day-to-day exercises of such powers by the police that the real chill of any offence is most keenly felt – and not the ultimate sentencing power of a court.

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This provision and other provisions in the bill before parliament have the potential to greatly restrict the rights of individuals to protest – or even go about their everyday activities.

As such, such provisions should receive the anxious scrutiny of parliamentarians. 

Despite the Law Commission origins of the proposed reform – there may be plenty here that the home office have added – and for various illiberal reasons.

Members of parliament are not there to nod-along – and this particular proposal should not just be nodded-through.

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