The reluctance of the Home Office to deny publicly that it is reconsidering the restoration of the death penalty – an example of government-media relations

15th January 2021

On 25th December 2020, of all days, the following was tweeted:

There are three immediate things to observe about this tweet.

First, the content.

This is a sensational claim but it is one which, for some people, would seem plausible.

The home secretary is a past supporter of the death penalty and the home secretary is also known as being willing to use home office policy on ‘law and order’ in a politicised way.

And elsewhere the United States has resumed federal executions in the run-up to a presidential election, and the similarly populist government of Turkey has signalled that it would want to reintroduce capital punishment.

Second, the provenance.

The account is anonymous but it does have a reasonably sized following, including followers from many areas of law and the media.

The account does not link to a site for the organisation named, and nor does a Google search indicate that the organisation has any existence beyond that twitter account.

We therefore do not know who the “us” is in the tweet and how much credibility their claim should have.

As such the claim cannot and should not be accepted without corroboration.

(This is not to diss the named organisation and what they campaign for, but is just a normal exercise in fact-checking.)

Third, the circulation of thee tweet.

As of today, the tweet has had an extraordinarily wide circulation.

It has had around 1,800 retweets and 1,900 quote-tweets – often from accounts that have accepted the claim in the tweet to be true or at least plausible.

This means a considerable number of people will now believe that the claim is correct or at least has some substance to it: that the home secretary has asked civil servants at the home office to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty.

(I do not have access to the tweet’s analytics, but in my experience, such a widely circulated tweet would have been seen by over one hundred thousand and possibly up to a million other twitter users – for that is the multiplying effect of thousands of retweets and quote-tweets.)

At this stage, now click on and read this magnificent post by Matthew Scott on the legal and practical difficulties of such a restoration of the death penalty, including the range of international legal instruments that prohibit such a restoration by the United Kingdom.

In essence: the United Kingdom could, in principle, restore the death penalty – it is a sovereign nation – but it would be in breach of many international agreements if it did so.

*

So either the claim is true – which would be important for us to know – or it is untrue – and, in view of the extraordinarily wide circulation of the tweet, it would be also important for the false claim to be publicly corrected.

(In saying that the claim may be untrue, this again is not to diss the account that tweeted – they may be only as good as their source, and it is possible they heard this from a‘little bird’ in good faith.)

I happen to be in the process of preparing and writing a few things at different titles (and here on this blog) that touch on populism and the use (and misuse and abuse) of law.

I had seen the tweet several times in quote tweets, and so my first step was to find out whether there was any other relevant information in the public domain.

 

There was none.

And so it seemed that the claim should be put to the home office to ascertain whether it was true.

My email query was:

“There is a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty – source: https://twitter.com/BameFor/status/1342495556732649478 

Can I please have a Home Office statement on this? Normally, and view of UK’s international obligations, one would expect a straight denial, without equivocation.”

*

At this stage, I expected to just get an email containing either a bland denial that the claim was untrue or perhaps an equally bland if evasive statement about not commenting on tweets.

What happened instead was a telephone call where I was told that the claim was ‘rubbish’.

Now ‘rubbish’ is one of those press officer words – like ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’ – that is used instead of a straight denial such as ‘incorrect’.

And any telephone call from a press office is rarely about providing information (that is what emails are for), it is about the press office trying to obtain information about what is to be published and then attempting to shape what is published – and not published.

It was quickly plain that the home office did not want anything published on this at all, notwithstanding the wide circulation of the original tweet.

So I asked for a statement in writing (I never take quotes over the telephone, especially not from government press offices).

The press office’s response to this request was to question its journalistic value (although one would think that a journalist is in a better place than a press office than to make that assessment).

Given the significance and the circulation of the original claim, it seemed to me that there should be a home office statement on the record.

Indeed, you would expect that the home office would be proud and open in stating that the United Kingdom was complying with its international obligations.

*

Later yesterday afternoon a statement was emailed:

“This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim from an unverified Twitter account. We are surprised that despite telling [you] this, [you] are still insisting on reporting it.”

The references ‘[you]’ in the statement is to the title they assumed would publish the statement.

The statement is worth unpacking.

The explicit reference to ‘despite telling [you] this’ placed beyond doubt that the telephone conversation was not ‘background’ – the public statement only makes sense if the previous conversation was also on the record.

The ‘completely’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ are both examples of over-emphasis – if the claim is untrue, then that is all that needs to be said.

(Like a politician who says ‘absolutely clear’ instead of ‘clear’, such additional words indicate potential evasion and misdirection.)

The denial is limited to the content and detail of the tweet – there is no general statement such as ‘the home office will not be restoring capital punishment’ and still less ‘the home office is proud to respect and comply with the international obligations of the United Kingdom’

Instead of such statements, there is an explicit attack on the credibility of the source and an implicit attack on the journalistic point of even putting this claim to the home office.

The ‘insisting’ is a perfect touch – and yes, one should insist that the home office should publicly state its position on restoring capital punishment when there is widely circulated claim that such restoration is being considered.

The home office wanted the statement to either be unusable or, if published, to discredit the news title publishing the story.

(I am happy to publish the public statement here, with the appropriate context set out.)

All this, instead of a simple statement that the claim was untrue and a statement that the home office is not seeking to reintroduce capital punishment and the United kingdom will comply with its international obligations.

*

There is nothing special about what happened here – this is what happens every day between government press offices and anyone in the media seeking to obtain information which the government does not want to publish.

The only difference is that I am in a position to set out the exchange on this blog.

It is a good thing that, despite their initial reluctance, the home office was able to publicly confirm that a widely circulated claim that restoration of the death penalty was “completely untrue and unsubstantiated”.

It is disappointing that the home office sought to do this with a quote intended to deter the use of the quote and thereby prevent any coverage of that denial.

And it is disappointing, but not surprising, that despite the public interest in such a widely circulated claim being openly denied, the home office insisted on going about it in this way instead.

*****

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The violent events of 6th January 2021 should be a turning-point, but what if history fails to turn?

12th January 2021

 

Writing of the effects (and lack of effects) of the 1848 ‘revolution’ in Germany, the historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote:

‘German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn.’

Identifying a moment in time as a potential turning-point is one thing, but it is quite another for it to actually be a turning-point.

*

Take, for example, seven days before the 2016 referendum when the British member of parliament Jo Cox was murdered by a person shouting ‘Britain First’.

That incident which took place at the most unpleasant moment of the referendum campaign – the ‘swamped’ poster was about the same time – felt as if it should have been a turning-point. 

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by the referendum campaign were out of control, that things had gone too far.

But it was not a turning-point – the referendum campaign quickly resumed – and the murder had no obvious impact.

*

The events in the United States of 6th January 2021 also seem to be a potential turning-point.

In what this blog and others aver was an attempted coup, and what was an insurrection on any view, there was a violent attempt to disrupt an essential constitutional step in the peaceful transfer of power, at the behest of (or at least in the interests of) a defeated politician.

Five people died.

There is currently an attempt, in the last few days of the current presidency to impeach that defeated candidate, President Donald Trump.

At the moment it looks unlikely that the impeachment will result in a conviction in the Senate and that Trump will be removed from office before 20th January 2021, when the presidential term ends by automatic operation of law.

One view is that the events of 6th January 2021 will shock Republican politicians and political supporters of Trump.

That the passions and indeed frenzy unleashed by his attempt to discredit the election result and to hold on to power were out of control, that things had gone too far.

Surely something will be done in response to what happened, in what Der Spiegel regards as a putsch (with Trump as Putschistenführer).

 *

But even if something decisive happens in respect of Trump personally – either that he is impeached or discredited as an individual – this does not directly address the ongoing challenge of Trumpism.

Even after everything in the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for him to be president.

Indeed, even after the visible manifestation of Trumpism on 6th January 2021, there still seems to be substantial political support for this nationalist authoritarian populism. 

It may not be going away.

*

Contemporaries are often not in a good position to tell whether some dramatic political event is either the end of something, or the start of something, or just an illustration of something.

The quotes in this tweet should be read carefully and in full.

In 1923 many thought that the attempted putsch of the war hero Ludendorff (then a more famous figure than the nationalist authoritarian populist leader who accompanied and then succeeded him) could be dismissed as some delayed after-effect of the great war.

And indeed Ludendorff was to a large extent personally discredited, but the cause for what he stood for certainly was not extinguished, and it was to take power within a decade.

An attempted coup, an insurrection, a putsch – all can be as much a start of something than an end of something.

*

It is easy to warn ‘we should not be complacent’.

(After all, nobody ever says ‘let us be complacent’.)

But liberals and progressives should be careful not to assume that the dramatic violence of 6th January 2021 will convert into some ongoing impediment to Trumpism – even if it converts into an impediment to Trump himself.

Trumpism should be taken just as seriously as a threat to liberal democracy and constitutionalism after 6th January 2021 than before.

The attempted coup, the insurrection, the putsch has not, at a stroke, discredited Trumpism – even if Trump (like Ludendorff) may no longer be the leader of the movement.

All because a tragic event should bring people to their senses, it just as often does not do so.

Sometimes things do meet what should be their turning-point, but things fail to turn.

*****

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Can a presidential pardon be revoked?

11th January 2021

As we enter the last ten days of this presidential term one of the matters being widely discussed is the extent and nature of presidential pardons generally, and the possibility of a ‘self-pardon’ in particular. 

This blog has already looked at the general issue – and on the self-pardon issue in particular, it seems to me to be a logical and legal absurdity.

But this post is about a related issue, which has not yet featured prominently in the debate about pardons: regardless of whether any power to pardon, can a pardon be revoked?

Would it be open to an incoming president to revoke the pardons of President Trump, including any (purported) self-pardon?

*

From first principles, and from a United Kingdom perspective, such a revocation would seem possible.

The power to pardon is, in the United Kingdom, part of the royal prerogative.

And just as no parliament can bind another, it would appear no sovereign can do so either.

The crown can make – and unmake – any treaty whatsoever.

The crown can bestow honours, which in turn can be ‘cancelled and annulled’ by the crown.

And so if these exercises of the royal prerogative are analogous, then it would appear that the sovereign could rescind a pardon – for example if it were wrongly made.

*

Turning to the United States, there are two examples of revoked presidential pardons.

In 1869, we are told by the Congressional Research Service, ‘after outgoing President Andrew Johnson issued but did not deliver a pardon, incoming President Ulysses S. Grant revoked the pardon, and a federal court upheld the revocation’.

The case report is here, where you will see that the judge stated in passing:

The law undoubtedly is, that when a pardon is complete, there is no power to revoke it, any more than there is power to revoke any other completed act.’

More recently, in 2008 President George W. Bush revoked a pardon he had himself granted, because of an outcry.

The New York Times then reported ‘when Mr. Bush granted Isaac Toussie, 37, a pardon earlier this week, the president and his advisers were unaware that the elder Mr. Toussie had recently donated $30,800 to Republicans. Mr. Bush took the extraordinary step of rescinding the pardon on Wednesday after reports about the political contributions.’

Again, the pardon had not been delivered.

*

In both of these precedents the revocation was possible because it had not been completed – the procedural equivalent of dashing to the post room to intercept a letter before it is actually sent out.

Neither of these precedents therefore are directly on the point of whether a pardon, once completed, can be revoked.

The opinion of the judge in 1869 is not binding for, among other things, that was not the issue which the court was being asked to determine.

*

So how would a modern court approach the issue?

In most circumstances, the effect of a pardon would be immediate: a person would be released from their sentence and so on.

And once that person has been relieved from their punishment, then any revocation would raise practical and other issues as to what would happen to the pardoned person.

One can see why it would be unfair that such a pardon was revoked, just as no person should not be punished twice for the same offence.

But what about a (blanket) pardon that is intended to pre-empt any possible prosecution?

Procedurally, the person who (purportedly) received the pardon would (presumably) raise the pardon as a bar to any proceedings.

The court would then (again presumably) examine the (purported) pardon (as in 1869), and if the pardon was valid then there would be would be a bar on the prosecution.

It would be – almost literally – a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which the person would raise in front of a judge.

(Of course, if it were known that a pardon had been given then a prosecution would normally not be brought in the first place – but, if it were brought, this is procedurally how a pardon would act as a bar on any prosecution.)

So, now imagine two fascinating possibilities.

First, imagine a court not accepting such a presented pardon at face value – and applying anxious scrutiny whether such a pardon (even if correct in form) had been within the powers of the president.

And second, imagine a court presented with two formal instruments – one purporting to grant a pardon, and another purporting to rescind it (like the cancellation and annulment of an honour, which reverses an otherwise completed act).

The first of these (delicious) legal puzzles would not be a revocation, of course, but an inquiry as to the legality of an instrument.

The second possibility, however, would require a court to review the possibility of a revocation of a pardon.

We would then see whether the 1869 dictum was a correct statement of the law.

*

The straight answer to the question at the head of the post is, as always with interesting legal questions, ‘we do not know’.

An approach from first principles points (at least for me) in one direction, but the precedent of 1869 (although it is not binding) points firmly in the other direction.

But given the lack of binding authority, it cannot be assumed casually that if a pardon – or self-pardon – is granted by President Trump that it is absolutely beyond the reach of revocation.

We may still get more constitutional excitement from the Trump presidency.

*****

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Impeachment exists for a reason – the arguments for and against the second impeachment of Donald Trump

9th January 2021

‘Impeachment’ and ‘indictment’ are sister words, sharing the suffix ‘-ment’, and they describe two ways by which a person can be tried and then either convicted or acquitted.

One practical difference (at least in modern times) between the two is that impeachment is usually a political process, while a trial on indictment is a matter of criminal law.

And one effect of this distinction is that if a sitting president of the United States is immune from prosecution in the criminal courts, there is always the alternative route of impeachment.

*

There are only eleven days before this presidential term ends, by automatic operation of law, on 20th January 2021.

The electoral college vote has been certified by congress and so there is no constitutional impediment (as far as this English lawyer is aware) to Joseph Biden becoming president on that day.

The question is whether Donald Trump should continue to be president in the meantime, given what he did and what happened on 6th January 2021.

As eleven days is such a short period, there is merit in the view that we should just wait it out – especially as he no longer has access to his Twitter platform (and the implications of such a ban was discussed on this blog yesterday) and the speaker of the house of representatives has has assurances on the president’s access to the nuclear codes.

And there is something also to be said that it would still be wrong, even now, to in effect override the result of the 2016 election – there was a democratic process and Trump as president was the result at the end of it.

*

But.

Impeachment exists in the United States constitution for a reason.

And if a president inciting a mob to invade Congress so as to disrupt the certification of the electoral college vote (in what this blog avers was an attempted coup) does not fulfil the requirement of a high crime and misdemeanour, then it is difficult to imagine what else would do so.

Even with only eleven days to go, such an extraordinary event should not go unmarked and shrugged-off.

Impeachment and conviction can also disqualify Trump from holding office again.

(And so, in respect of the presidency, such disqualification would place Trump in the same position as if he had not been born in the United States.)

On this basis there is a strong – if not compelling – case that Trump should be impeached and convicted – both in terms of what has happened and of the future.

*

Yet.

You do not sustainably solve a problem caused by hyper-partisanship with more partisanship.

And so any impeachment and conviction should ideally be on a genuinely non-partisan basis – and not just the Democratic bloc with a few Republicans.

Here the United States constitution is helpful – as a conviction by the senate has to be with the ‘concurrence of two thirds of the members present’.

Therefore there would have to be a substantial number of Republican senators in favour – but even if there were sixteen or so such Republican senators, it would still savour of partisanship, unless the Republican congressional leadership were also in favour of conviction.

This is not to say that there should not be an impeachment and conviction if enough Republican senators are in favour – sometimes you just have to do the right thing anyway – but a warning that such an exercise will not be the once-and-for-all end of the problem of Trump and Trumpism.

But, then again, there may not be any solution to that problem.

*

There is another way that could be employed to displace Trump.

The twenty-fifth amendment provides an elaborate mechanism by which the vice president and members of the cabinet can declare that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

In these circumstances the vice president will become the acting president.

This approach has the attraction of being inherently non-partisan – as those making the decision are Republican politicians – and also the attraction of pragmatism – as it deftly yanks Trump away from exercising the powers of the president.

The problem, however, is that it is not – at least not directly – a mark against the encouragement of the attempted coup, and nor does it disqualify him from future office.

(Or Trump could – like Nixon – just resign in an attempt to pre-empt any of the above – but it is hard to imagine Trump bringing himself to sign that piece of paper.)

*

Of course, whatever does happen will then look as if it were inevitable all along.

But whether or not Trump is impeached and convicted, there will still be two truths.

First, impeachment is there for a reason.

And second, what the president did on 6th January is such a reason.

*****

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The contest between violent populism and constitutionalism – and why it was not inevitable that yesterday’s attempted coup in the United States would fail

7th January 2021

Yesterday we watched, in real-time, an attempted coup in the United States.

Was it an attempted coup?

Some are already fussing about the ‘coup’ word – that it was merely a security violation, a mere matter of public order.

That view is not correct, for three reasons.

It was an attempted coup.

*

First, an essential constitutional stage for a peaceful transfer of power was disrupted.

The constitutional stage – usually a formality – was the certification of the electoral college vote by congress.

It is this certification that would make the inauguration of a new president happen on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

No certification, no certainty of inauguration of a new president.

The disruption was the object and the effect of the disorder.

And until and unless the electoral college vote is certified then the 20 January inauguration is uncertain.

(The resumed Congress is still considering the electoral college votes as I type.)

*

Second, the disruption was at the behest of the losing candidate – or, if you nod-along with plausible deniability, it was at least done so as to ensure he stayed in office.

It was disruption with the purpose of keeping a losing candidate in office.

And that candidate then praised these ‘special’ people for what they did.

Indeed, for the candidate’s daughter, these disruptors were ‘patriots’.

*

And third, the disruption was forceful.

The mob forced their way in, and there are reports of fatalities and injuries.

This was not a peaceful protest or an exercise in civil disobedience.

*

So a group (a) used force to (b) disrupt an essential constitutional process (c) at the behest of (or in the interests of) a politician – and if that disruption had succeeded, the inauguration of a new president would have been rendered uncertain.

That was an attempt at a coup.

*

One significant detail in what happened yesterday was that the order to deploy the national guard came from the vice president, not the president.

As Sherlock Holmes would have said, this was a ‘curious incident‘.

This means that, left to the president, there would have been insufficient coercive power to disperse the mob.

As any A-level history student knows – or should know – for a rebellion to succeed requires not only rebels, but also a weakness in the regime that is being rebelled against.

Usually the weaknesses of the regime are not deliberate.

But here the president seems to have wanted to maximise the disruptive power of the mob.

*

Another significant detail is how light-touch the policing was generally.

As a liberal, I am all in favour in light-touch policing.

The priority in such a situation should be public safety rather than the use of brutal – or lethal – force.

Yet the contrast with the policing of, say, the Black Lives Matter protest is stark – and telling.

If those who rioted yesterday had different colour skins then they would have been no doubt arrested or shot by police officers dressed up like Robocops.

Instead, there were hardly any arrests, and the rioters were just allowed to go home.

The photographs of some of the rioters – posing here and there in the Capitol – would be unthinkable if they were not white.

What happened yesterday was an expression of white privilege.

*

This attempted coup is what you get when politicians play with the monster of populist nationalist authoritarianism.

So often in history, politicians believe they can tame this beast, and that the beast will serve them.

And those politicians usually end up being devoured by the creature.

*

Today, it look like the attempt at a coup failed, and that the new president will be inaugurated on 20th January 2021.

Yesterday was a contest between constitutionalism and violent populism.

It was not inevitable that constitutionalism would always win this contest.

*****

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Another national lockdown – but what is needed more than laws and their enforcement is credibility, sound policy, and for voters to care that ministers now get it right

5th January 2021

Another lockdown in England and the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Another dollop of regulations containing restrictions backed by criminal sanctions, and another dollop of governmental guidance and ministerial exhortations.

This is the third national lockdown in England, and the sound of the official starting whistle is now familiar.

Will it work?

And if not, why not?

*

If the lockdown is to work, it will not be by law alone.

As this blog has previously averred, law is not magic, and regulations are not spells.

It does not matter how solemn the law-making ceremony is, and how solemnly the laws are then pronounced. 

To have effect any laws need to be clear, comprehensible, and accessible.

And this has been the fault now, for over a year, with the coronavirus regulations – they are difficult to find, at least in their up-to-date and consolidated form, and impossible for a non-lawyer to follow.

Indeed, it is rumoured that there is only one person – Adam Wagner, a barrister in London – who has read and understood all the legal instruments enacted over the last year in England.

(I happen to be an experienced former government lawyer, trained in drafting statutory instruments, and with a speciality in public law and an understanding of emergency legislation – and I gave up trying to keep on top of the ever-changing increasingly complicated lump of coronavirus legislation last Autumn.)

And if the laws are not clear, comprehensible, and accessible, then – regardless of any other factor – law-making is a futile exercise.

More than mere law is needed.

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The second thing that is needed is enforcement.

Criminal laws that are not enforced are official fictions.

They are nothing more than the sort of item you get on those lists you see from time to time, of ridiculous laws from yesteryear that are still nominally in force but ignored.

And for criminal laws to be enforced, there needs to be be resources and an understanding of the law by those entrusted to enforce the law.

There also needs to be a working criminal justice system.

And there is little evidence of there being resources in place for laws to be enforced either by by police or by the courts.

Without credible enforcement, it does not matter if you keep increasing the supposed penalties to incredible amounts – like some Dr Evil boasting of a ransom of one million dollars. 

 

But more than enforcement is needed.

With a challenge of the sheer scale of a pandemic, only a totalitarian state could perhaps rely on laws and enforcement alone

*

For the lockdown to work in a modern non-totalitarian society, there needs to be consent.

In essence: laws and sanctions should only have any effect at the margins, because the mass of the people will do the ‘right thing’ anyway.

And this engages the normative issues of legitimacy, accountability, fairness, and credibility.

There cannot be one law for the many, and another for those who go on day trips to Barnard Castle.

There cannot be one law on a Monday, allowing children to go back to school after the Christmas vacation, and then suddenly another law on the Tuesday.

There cannot be a demand for schools to be closed, just days after the government was – literally – threatening a council with a High Court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.

There cannot be many things – that is if a government genuinely wants to be taken seriously in imposing a lockdown.

*

But even laws and sanctions, resources and enforcement, and consent and credibility, are not enough if the underlying policy is not sound – or seen to be sound.

And this is also a challenge for this government.

The fundamental mistake with government policy on coronavirus, as with Brexit, is that it has approached something complex as if it were quick and easy, and ministers have kept preferring crowd-pleasing gestures to dealing with the problems that they put-off.

Most of the problems of Brexit policy, and many of the problems in coronavirus policy, were foreseeable and foreseen.

Ministers were told at the time.

But ministers shrugged, and made the mistakes anyway.

Unless there is sound policy in place, blowing the official whistle for another lockdown – with all the paraphernalia of laws and guidance, and ministerial broadcasts – will not work, and cannot work.

Ministers need to get policy right – and then other benefits will follow.

This is the rub – ministers keep shrugging and crowd-pleasing and getting policy wrong, because they know they can get away with it.

In other words: ministers know that a sufficient number of voters do not care enough whether politicians are candid and competent on coronavirus, as with other things.

And so until a sufficient number of voters do care that politicians are candid and competent, we are likely to keep on hearing the whistle sound of bad policy-making and implementation, and for as long as the pandemic persists.

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The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.

*

The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.

*

First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.

*

Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.

 

From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.

*

The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.

*

The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.

*

The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

*

And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.

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The coded criticisms of the Attorney-General from both the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal

17th December 2020

The office of Attorney-General is at the very crossroads of law and politics.

As a lawyer, the Attorney-General is the government’s chief legal adviser and, by convention, is the head of the Bar of England and Wales.

They superintend the Crown Prosecution Service, and they can (and do) initiate contempt of court proceedings against the media.

A further role is that they can act in proceedings where they represent the public interest and/or the government.

They also can decide to refer cases to the court of appeal where it appears a criminal court has been ‘unduly lenient’ in sentencing.

These are all important – crucial -tasks and so it follows that these roles must be taken seriously.

The Attorney-General is, however, also a politician – usually a member of parliament but sometimes a peer – and one who attends the cabinet.

It is a job therefore where the holder has to wear two hats – or horsehair wigs.

And it is not an easy task even for senior politicians and experienced lawyers.

*

The current Attorney-General is neither a senior politician nor an experienced lawyer.

This, of course, is not their fault – although some in this position if they were offered the office would not take it.

The current holder of the office, however, is going out of their way to politicise and thereby to discredit the legal side of the office.

This blog has previously set out how the current Attorney-General should have resigned when they unapologetically tweeted in respect of a case of a political ally who was then subject to a live police investigation.

That really was not what the superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service should be doing.

*

There is now a further example of how the current Attorney-General is undermining their office.

Here there are three texts that are of interest.

*

First, here is a Daily Express article from 7th November 2020: Attorney General to appear at Andrew Harper’s killers appeal hearing next week.

In the body of that article, under the byline of a political editor, was the following:

‘A friend of Ms Braverman’s told the Sunday Express:

‘“She was met with strong opposition from civil servants to pursue this case but she held firm and has done the right thing.

‘“She made it clear she wants to be there to underline how important this issue is to the ‘government and how seriously it takes this case.

“If the judges uphold the original sentences then she will have still done the right thing and it will be another example of wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals.”’

As is widely known, ‘friend’ is a code in political journalism for either the politician themselves or someone speaking on their behalf, such as a special adviser.

As far as I am aware, this quote has not been disavowed by the Attorney-General.

*

Second, here is a speech on sentencing by the Lord Chief Justice made on 9th December 2020.

Here are two paragraphs from this informative and accessible speech (asterisk and emphasis added):

‘Were the mythical alien to arrive on earth and, I grant you yet more improbably, take an interest in sentencing in England and Wales by reading the newspapers and dipping into the more noisy parts of on-line media, it would soon gain the impression that sentencing had got softer in recent years. It would read about “wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals” (*) and wonder why criminals convicted of serious offences were getting more lenient sentences than they used to. Then our alien visitor might seek some other sources of information, and if possessed of a brow it might become furrowed.

‘There is a difficulty with this narrative. It is a myth.’

The Lord Chief Justice then proceeds in his speech to demonstrate how sentencing has certainly not got softer.

But who was the judge quoting about “wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals” ?

The quotation is footnoted (where I have inserted the asterisk), and the footnote reads:

‘Sunday Express 8 November 2020, quoting a source.’

The Lord Chief Justice is here publicly dismissing – perhaps even deriding – the ‘friend’ of the Attorney-General who in turn is describing the Attorney-General’s motivation for intervening in a criminal sentencing case.

For the head of the judiciary to be doing this openly to the government’s chief legal adviser and holder of the ancient office of Attorney-General is an extraordinary public intervention.

*

And now we turn to the Court of Appeal judgment in respect of the sentencing of those who killed the police constable Andrew Harper.

The facts of the case are horrific.

Three were convicted of manslaughter, though a jury acquitted them of murder.

And so the three were sentences in accordance with the guidelines for manslaughter.

The Attorney-General, as the Daily Express article describes, exercised one of their powers and referred the sentences to the court of appeal on the basis of the sentences being ‘unduly lenient’.

The Attorney-General then – oddly for a barrister with no substantial criminal law background – appeared personally at the hearing.

There are three paragraphs of the judgment of interest in respect of the contribution and role of the Attorney-General.

Paragraph 57:

‘In her initial remarks, the Attorney General rehearsed some of the facts and said that the sentences have caused widespread public concern. She outlined four points, about which Mr Little QC then made submissions.’

Here the court are not even deigning to describe the Attorney-General’s contribution as submissions – a ‘submission’ is something one submits to the court for consideration – but merely as remarks.

(The Supreme Court adopted a similar remarks/submission distinction when a former Attorney-General appeared (out of his depth) at the first Miller case: ‘Following opening remarks made by HM Attorney General, Mr Eadie QC in his submissions on behalf of the Secretary of State, did not challenge much if any of the factual basis of these assertions…’ – paragraph 57 here.)

We now turn to the submission that were made, if not personally by the Attorney-General, but by another barrister on their behalf.

Paragraph 83 (emphasis added):

As to the length of the custodial terms, we note a striking feature of the submissions. When applications are made by the Attorney General for leave to refer to this court sentences which are said to be unduly lenient, it is frequently on the basis that the judge fell into error by failing to follow a relevant guideline. In this case, however, the argument advanced by the Attorney is that the sentence of Long, and therefore the sentences on Bowers and Cole, were unduly lenient because the judge erred in failing to depart from the relevant guideline.

Just as political journalists have their codes, so too do judges.

And to describe as position as ‘striking’ is to say that it is barking – and the rest of the paragraph explains why.

In essence: unduly lenient sentences are those which depart from the guidelines and not those made in accordance with them.

This is then followed by paragraph 84 (again emphasis added):

‘That is, to say the least, an unusual submission. It involves the proposition that in the circumstances of this case, a sentence within the guideline offence range was not within the range properly open to the judge, who was instead required to pass a sentence outside that range. We think it regrettable that, in advancing that submission, the structure and ambit of the guideline were not addressed. Nor was any sufficient explanation given why it is contended that the judge was not merely entitled to depart from the guideline but positively required to do so.’

Here ‘unusual’ means, in effect, beyond barking – and again the rest of the paragraph sets out why.

These are obvious points and would have been plain to government lawyers.

But as ‘friend’ of the Attorney General said, ‘[s]he was met with strong opposition from civil servants to pursue this case’.

And paragraphs 83 and 84 set out why.

*

Taking these three texts together we can see that the judiciary are alert to the motivations of the Attorney-General and are resistant to the attempts to politicise the office, and that the judiciary will be unafraid to reject ‘striking’ and ‘unusual’ submissions made on behalf of the Attorney-General.

The judges are not stupid or unworldly – they know exactly the import of coded criticisms in public speeches and judgments.

The Attorney-General may be sending signals, but so are the judges.

*

But this Attorney-General will not care.

The political job is done – and one can imagine the claps and cheers of the ‘friend’ quoted in the Daily Express article. 

She took on the ‘wet, liberal judges being soft on criminals’.

But this political job has been done at a cost.

Although a politician, the Attorney-General is entrusted with highly important decisions in respect of not only referring ‘unduly lenient’ sentences, but also in respect of many other legal matters, from contempt of court to the operation of the crown prosecution service.

But the conduct of the current Attorney-General is such that their credibility as a decision-maker capable of making such decisions on the appropriate basis is open to doubt.

This quick win for a political ambitious Attorney General is at the cost of the standing of their office.

The Attorney-General is weaponising her legal responsibilities for political purposes.

This is a remarkable, striking and unusual predicament.

And given that the Attorney-General is not only doing this recklessly but with apparent enthusiasm means that there is no reason for anyone watching it happen in real time to be unduly lenient.

*****

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Section 007 – how the government authorises criminal activity by its agents, and a telling recent disclosure

16th December 2020

One theme in recent law and policy has been for the government of the United Kingdom to increasingly place itself and its agents above or beyond the law.

There is, of course, a certain hypocrisy in this given how loudly ministers shout about ‘Law and Order!’.

Sometimes this is done subtly, with limits on the scope judicial review, the law of human rights, and the entitlement to legal aid when one is challenging public bodies.

But sometimes it is done quite openly – indeed brazenly.

One example is the current attempt – which I explain in this video for the Financial Times – to make it effectively impossible to prosecute members of the armed forces for war crimes and torture.

 

Another attempt – though it has just been dropped – was to enable ministers to issue regulations that would break the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

And another attempt is the current Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill before parliament.

The long title of the Bill expressly states that it is to:

‘Make provision for, and in connection with, the authorisation of criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of covert human intelligence sources.’

The Bill provides for ‘criminal conduct authorisations’ which are defined as ‘authorisation[s] for criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of a covert human intelligence source.’

On the face of the Bill there are no exempt criminal offences – and so, in theory, they would include murder, war crimes and torture.

*

At this point one can imagine senior security officials with kindly faces and reassuring manners telling us that, of course, no such offences would ever be committed.

But.

It is a matter of public record that the United Kingdom state was complicit in the murder of civil rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

The United Kingdom state has also been complicit in the torture of civilians, in Northern Ireland, Kenya and Iraq.

The sheer volume of accumulated historical evidence is that, yes, we really should be worrying our little heads about what the United Kingdom state and its agents are capable of when they think it can get away with it.

*

And there is now a more up-to-date reason to be concerned about the lack of effective controls and accountability.

Here the relevant provision is the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

(Ok, it is section 7 – but it amuses me.)

This provides for ministerial authorisations for people to break the law outside the British and Irish isles and then not have any criminal or civil liability for those acts in the United Kingdom.

It is a remarkable and little-known provision, and is worth a good look.

This is the so-called ‘licence to kill’.

And, of course, senior security officials with kindly faces and reassuring manners will tell us that the power would never be abused, and that those granting the authorisations will only do so on the basis of full information.

But as set out in yesterday’s Guardian, there has been a problem.

This was spotted by the fine organisation Reprieve, hidden away on page 59 of a dense 168 page report, in two paragraphs 9.39 and 9.40 (emphasis added):

‘9.39 We reviewed a section 7 submission relating to a high-risk SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] agent case overseas. SIS identified a risk that the agent may be involved in serious criminality overseas. SIS did not encourage, condone or approve any such criminality on the part of their agent. In their submission, SIS set out that they had secured the agent’s cooperation on terms of full transparency about the activities in which the agent was involved. It included some clear ‘red lines’, setting out conduct that was not authorised and would result in the termination of SIS’s relationship with the agent.

‘9.40 On renewal, six months after the original submission, SIS set out a number of indicators that the agent may have been involved in, or have contemplated, the serious criminality referenced above. We concluded that, on the basis of this new information, SIS’s ‘red lines’ had most likely been breached, but the renewal submission failed to make this clear. Whilst the submission referred to SIS’s ‘red lines’ provided information about criminality that may have occurred and noted an increased risk in the case, it did not make expressly clear that SIS’s ‘red lines’ had probably been crossed. We concluded that the renewal did not provide a comprehensive overview of available information which we believe would have provided the Secretary of State with a fuller and more balanced picture. SIS immediately responded to these concerns by updating the FCO.’

Or, as the Guardian rightly put it:

‘MI6 failed to make clear to the foreign secretary that a “high risk agent” operating overseas had probably engaged in “serious criminality” until it was pointed out by an independent regulator last year.’

*

This means that there is very recent evidence that the United Kingdom security services do not provide appropriate information to those making authorisations in respect of criminal activity.

If this is happening with section 7 authorisations for foreign law-breaking, there is no reason to believe this will not also happen under the current bill providing for authorisations for domestic law-breaking.

*

The United Kingdom government has recently put forward legislative proposals for limiting torture and war crimes prosecutions, authorising criminal conduct for agents of the security forces, and even for powers to break the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

There has never been a government that has put so much legislative effort into making it possible to break laws rather than into making laws.

***

Remembering David Cornwell – John le Carré – who would not be surprised at any of this.

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The shoddy legal direction of Gavin Williamson to Greenwich Council

15th December 2020

Amidst the flurry of government regulations closing down various things during the current pandemic comes this very different legal instrument from Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education.

Instead of ordering a thing to close, the Secretary of State is ordering things to stay open.

It is an extraordinary letter, and it is worth examining carefully.

(As a preliminary point, however, please note I am not an education law specialist and so there may be sector-specific legal aspects of this of which I am unaware – the examination in this post is on general legal principles and based on my experience as a former government lawyer and as a public lawyer generally.)

*

First, let us look at the power on which the Secretary of State relies upon.

It would seem there is no general legal power for the Secretary of State to order that any school remain open (or close), and so the letter relies on a specific provision in the Coronavirus Act 2020.

(If there were such a general legal power to issue such a direction, then presumably the Secretary of State would rely upon that power instead of the Coronavirus Act 2020.)

The relevant section of the Act is section 38.

The relevant part of that section is section 38(1)(a) which provides for a power to enable the Secretary of State to give directions requiring the ‘provision, or continuing provision, of education, training and childcare’.

That provision in turn refers to a paragraph in a schedule to the Act.

(This is not a ‘paragraph’ as such – it is a wordy provision which goes on for three pages, like something from a W. G. Sebald book.)

The paragraph sets out in detail the requirements for a ‘temporary continuity direction’ under section 38 – like a checklist.

For example, the Secretary of State must have regard to medical advice (paragraph 1(3)(a) and the direction must be necessary and proportionate (paragraph 1(3)(b).

The direction can require the recipient to take ‘reasonable steps in general terms’ (paragraph 1(4)(a)) and require a relevant institution to stay open or to re-open (paragraph 1(4)(b).

There is also a catch-all power that the Secretary of State may make any other connected provisions which he or she ‘considers appropriate’ (paragraph 1(4)(i)).

*

What is the duty of the recipient of such a direction?

The Act provides that it is ‘the duty of a responsible body or relevant institution to which a temporary continuity direction…to comply with the direction’.

How is this duty to be enforced?

If the recipient does not comply with a direction, the government can make an application to the courts for an injunction.

(Both the above are in paragraph 1(6) of the schedule.)

This would, of course, be an unusual injunction – most injunctions prohibit a person from doing a thing, while this will be a rarer ‘mandatory’ injunction requiring a person to do a thing.

A failure to comply with an injunction is, at law, a serious matter and can be a contempt of court, with (presumably) sanctions such as imprisonment and unlimited fines.

A breach of a mandatory injunction may also result in a court directing that the required act be completed by another person at the expense of the disobedient party (CPR 70.2A).

*

This looks like a wide and arbitrary power for the Secretary of State to give directions, with serious sanctions for a breach of a direction.

But if you look carefully there are explicit statutory requirements for the Secretary of State to be reasonable and to use this power only where necessary and proportionate.

These requirements are also imposed by the general law.

These will be quite high hurdles for the Secretary of State to jump.

*

Going back to the letter, you will see that in paragraph 2 of the letter the Secretary of State asserts that he ‘considers [the direction] to be reasonable’ – but there is almost no reasoning other than a general reference to a general interest (‘of securing that schools…allow pupils to attend school full time’ ) and a general reference to the Secretary of State’s guidance (but with no specific guidance quoted).

There is also no local data.

Any court would expect to see far more reasoning than this before enforcing such a direction with a mandatory order.

For example, can the education of the pupils not be done remotely?

Has proper regard been made to local conditions?

Is it proportionate and necessary to mandate a school to remain open with only days left in the school term?

Is it fair and equitable (a test of most injunctions) to insist a state school remain open when many private schools remain closed?

These are not ‘gotcha’ questions, but points which one knows a court will ask before granting an injunction – and so should be anticipated and covered in a letter threatening an injunction.

But there is nothing in this letter to meet these obvious and foreseeable questions that would need to be answered in court.

*

This direction then, even if it is the right thing for the Secretary of State to order, is not a well-drafted piece of legal work.

If i were still a government lawyer I would have been embarrassed to have prepared this for a minister.

It is not enough to assert that a thing is reasonable, necessary or proportionate – these statutory requirements for a direction also need to be shown.

*

The recipient of this letter – Greenwich Council – has already published an initial response.

Their initial response is as detailed as the Secretary of State’s letter is not.

“Yesterday we asked all schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich to move to online learning for most pupils, but keep premises open for the children of key workers, vulnerable children and those with special educational needs. 

‘Other boroughs have asked schools to take similar measures, and the Mayor of London has also called for all secondary schools to close, with an extra week off in January to enable testing.  

‘Our request was based on information from Public Health England and supported by the Council’s Public Health team. In the Royal Borough of Greenwich, we currently have the highest rates of COVID-19 since March, with numbers doubling every four days. Our seven-day infection rate for the borough is now 59% higher than at the same point last week. 

‘Infection rates are particularly high amongst young people, with 817 children of school age testing positive for COVID-19. 4,262 children and 362 staff are self-isolating – that’s an increase of 640 people since Friday. In many cases, other members of the child’s household have also tested positive, impacting entire families. 

‘Schools across the borough have now organised online learning from tomorrow, whilst others are opening their premises to all pupils. This evening we received a legal direction from the Government to withdraw our request to schools. We are in the process of seeking legal advice and will respond to the Government in the morning.  

‘We have alerted schools, and will speak to them tomorrow. But given we received this notification just before 5pm, it was impossible to ask schools to change any of the arrangements they have in place for Tuesday.’

The person(s) who drafted that response have done a good job: they are showing how the closure is reasonable, necessary and proportionate.

The response is based on local data and shows that reasonable alternative arrangements have been made.

The response also shows the council is in a better position to asses the situation than the Secretary of State.

*

On the basis of information in the Greenwich Council response, the government would be hard-pressed to obtain an injunction in support of their direction.

None of the above is to say that the government’s ultimate position is weak – a better prepared direction, based on local data, and with proper and detailed reasoning, may have been – or still be – possible.

But such a direction letter was not sent, and this shoddy one was sent instead.

The Secretary of State may issue a better direction – or government lawyers may turn up to court with a better application for an injunction.

The government is even threatening to go to court ‘without notice’ so that the council may be subjected to an injunction without any say in court, which would be inappropriate given the council have set out already that it believes it is acting reasonably.

*

Ministerial directions are powerful legal instruments, but they should always be used with care.

When I was young I often had reports sent from school averring that I could do better.

But here we have what purports to be a formal government direction sent to keep schools open where one could say of the Secretary of State that they could do better.

*

POSTSCRIPT

Sadly – at least for the legal commentary (at least) the council has decided not to contest the direction in court.

The council, of course, is entitled to take such a decision.

But its decision to comply with the direction does not take away anything from the critique above.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising a topical law and policy matter – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

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