Why a two thousand page EU-UK relationship agreement cannot be properly scrutinised between now and 31 December 2020

23rd December 2020

A week tomorrow, on 31st December 2020, the Brexit transition period comes to an end.

This transition period has artificially kept in place most of the substance of membership of the European Union for the United Kingdom (other than representation on various institutions) even though as a matter of law the United Kingdom departed the European Union on 31st January 2020.

There is still no agreement in place for the future relationship.

There is still, it seems, not even an agreed draft text in final form.

And there certainly has not been ratification by the European Parliament.

(In the United Kingdom, parliament does not need to ratify an international agreement though parliament may need to legislate so as to implement what has been agreed.)

According to one well-connected and reliable commentator the current version of the agreement is two thousand pages long.

This is not a surprise, given the scope of what needs to be addressed in the agreement – the new ongoing relationship of the United Kingdom and the European Union on trade and other matters.

There are also news reports that the negotiators have missed the deadline for any agreement to be voted on by the European Parliament before the end of the year.

But even if somehow the European Parliament can reconvene before end of the year, there is not enough time for anyone other than those directly connected with the negotiation (and so will be familiar with the text) to scrutinise the agreement.

Today is a Wednesday – Christmas Eve and Christmas Day block out tomorrow and Friday, and then it’s the the weekend, and then it is the Boxing Day holiday on Monday.

That leaves only three full days to do everything.

The situation is ludicrous.

*

A legal instrument is a complex thing.

Legal texts are not linear documents – you do not start reading on page one and go through to the end, and then stop.

A legal text is more akin to a computer program – law codes and computer coding are remarkably similar things.

Each provision – indeed, each word – in a legal instrument has a purpose.

Each provision has to, in turn, cohere with all the other provisions elsewhere in the text – so Article 45, for example, needs to fit with Article 54, and so on.

In an international agreement such as this relationship treaty, each provision also has to cohere with hundreds – perhaps thousands – of other provisions in other legal instruments.

(This is especially true of an agreement entered into by the European Union, which is a creature of law.)

Each provision also has to be capable of working in practice – and so needs to be assessed from a practical as well as a legal(istic) perspective.

And – perhaps most importantly – any significant legal instrument needs to be examined and approved by political representatives.

This last requirement is particularly important when the agreement will have huge consequences for people and for businesses.

*

And there is something else.

The United Kingdom government has now twice – in a rush – signed up to something so as to ‘get Brexit done’ and then regretted it.

The first was the ‘joint declaration’ in withdrawal agreement negotiations, and the second was the withdrawal agreement itself – which the United Kingdom government sought to legislate so that it could break the law.

This means that nobody can have any real confidence that government ministers have any proper understanding of what they are signing up to.

If any agreement needs proper scrutiny, this one does.

*

Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol makes it so that all three visitations are packed into a single evening.

But not even an imagination as vivid as that of Dickens could make it plausible that a two thousand page agreement of such immense importance could be properly examined as a matter of law and for practicality, and to receive proper political scrutiny, in the few days available before the end of the year.

Brace, brace.

*****

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What if? What if? What if? – three counterfactuals about Brexit, and how they may have not turned out as Remainers would have liked

22nd December 2020

As the United Kingdom is now fewer than ten days away from the end of the Brexit transition period, and there is still no agreement in place, it is tempting to ask ‘what if things had been different?’ and to ponder whether if only [x] or [y] had happened everything would be ok.

So here are three counterfactuals, as thought experiments.

(Counterfactuals can be instructive, as long as you do not take them too seriously.)

*

The first counterfactual is about the 2016 referendum.

What if there had not been a referendum, or if Remain had won the referendum?

Surely then the last few years would have been different?

Well.

As the then prime minister and the Conservatives had won the 2015 general election – that party’s first outright victory since 1992 – with the manifesto commitment to hold an ‘in/out’ referendum, not having a referendum would have had a political consequence.

And that consequence would likely to have been a continued rise in support for UKIP – in local elections and the European Parliament election –  resulting no doubt in a strong showing at the general election set for 2020 under the Fixed-term Parliament Act.

The matter of Brexit may not have gone away.

Similarly a narrow Remain victory – say, ahem, 52:48 – also would not have disposed of the issue, with Leavers then seeing that only one more heave was necessary for Brexit to happen.

By 2015-16, it is difficult to see that anything other than an emphatic Remain victory in a referendum ridding domestic politics of significant demands for Brexit.

*

The second counterfactual is about the manner of departure.

The referendum result provided a mandate for the United Kingdom to depart the European Union.

But the referendum result, by itself, said nothing directly about the means and timing of the departure.

So it would have been open to a government to take its time, and to put in place a cross-party and thought-through plan, taking full and serious account of the immensity and complexity of Brexit.

Instead, however, we got Theresa May and then Boris Johnson wrongly treating Brexit as if it could be done easily and quickly, and driving it through on a highly partisan basis.

But – and here Leavers have a point – a Brexit delayed was likely to mean that Brexit would never happen.

And so unless Brexit was done briskly those opposed to Brexit would have attempted to subvert the exercise, regardless of the referendum mandate.

If a government had been rational and diligent in its planning for Brexit this, however, would have led to increasing backbench, Ukip and media pressure to ‘get Brexit done’.

And so unless Brexit was done on a cross-party basis – perhaps with a national government – it is difficult to see how long any prime minister who sought to avoid a botched Brexit would have lasted.

*

The third counterfactual brings us to the current predicament.

What if there had been an extension to the transition period of one or two years?

This blog yesterday set out how that extension did not happen, and this is why the United Kingdom is now dealing with both a pandemic and the end of the transition period at the same time.

No sensible person would disagree that an extension should have been sought and secured, if only in view of the pandemic.

But.

Does anyone seriously think that an extra year or two years would have resulted in the United Kingdom government actually deciding what it wanted out of Brexit?

Would the next year or two be any different to the last four years?

If there had been extensions to the ends of 2021 and 2022, we would then be in the same confused state as we are now – the only possible grace would be there not being a concurrent pandemic.

*

My own view is that the counterfactual with the most force is ‘what if’ any government of the United Kingdom – or the Conservative or Labour parties – had made a positive case for membership  from the 1980s onwards?

Instead we had opt-out after opt-out, with both those parties competing with each other to boast of how the United Kingdom was apart from the European Union.

And the print media in turn both encouraged and fed off this political antipathy.

So by 2015-16 it was difficult to see how the Brexit issue would go well for Remainers, even if certain decisions after 2015 had been taken differently.

Only a counterfactual which posits a different political context for the Brexit issue by 2015 seems to me to be plausible way of showing how Brexit could have been avoided.

*

Another Brexit pundit once wrote about the various possible branches of history to do with Brexit.

That pundit, despite their wrongness on other issues, had a point.

There was no inevitability about any stage of the Brexit story.

Things could have turned out differently.

But there is also no reason to think they necessarily have turned out any better.

*****

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How a government capable of ‘cancelling Christmas’ did not extend the Brexit transition period – or why populism keeps prevailing over prudence

Winter Solstice, 2020

How did it come to pass that a government capable of ‘cancelling Christmas’ did not extend the Brexit transition period,?

Why is the United Kingdom having to deal simultaneously with the effects of both a pandemic and the departure from the European Union?

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The Brexit withdrawal agreement provided for a transition period, where the United Kingdom remained part of the European Union in substance if not in legal from (though not part of the law and policy making institutions).

Article 126 of that exit agreement provided that this extension period would end on 31 December 2020.

*

The exit agreement also provided that the transition period could be extended – either by one or even two years.

This was a prudent provision –  just in case something happened which meant the brisk ‘let’s get Brexit done’ timetable was not possible because of some significant development – well, like a worldwide pandemic.

Yet 1st July 2020 came and went with no extension to the transition period.

*

This deadline for putting in place an extension was not a mere omission – the sort of thing a busy government may not have noticed in the rush of events.

The  failure to put in place the extension was a deliberate decision of the United Kingdom.

On 12 June 2020, the cabinet minister responsible for negotiations with the European Union announced proudly:

‘We have informed the EU today that we will not extend the Transition Period. The moment for extension has now passed.’

Had he perhaps not realised there was a pandemic on at the time?

Remarkably, the following sentence of the minister’s statement expressly stated that the decision not to extend was in view of the pandemic:

‘At the end of this year we will control our own laws and borders which is why we are able to take the sovereign decision to introduce arrangements in a way that gives businesses impacted by coronavirus time to adjust.’

The United Kingdom government promoted the decision not to extend as a news story.

The deadline was even the topic of direct discussion between the prime minister and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission on 15 June 2020:

‘The Parties noted the UK’s decision not to request any extension to the transition period. The transition period will therefore end on 31 December 2020, in line with the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.’

The United Kingdom government knew the extension deadline was about to pass, and the government decided deliberately to not have an extension with full awareness (and explicit mention) of the ongoing pandemic.

Getting Brexit done’ was more important.

Populism prevailed over prudence.

*

This option to extend the transition period was the only way to do so that was written into the exit agreement.

This means that, on the face of it, there is no way there can be an agreement now to extend the transition period.

The opportunity to extend the agreement would appear to have come and gone.

That said, there may be other ways of an extension – as set out by Georgina Wright and others in this report by the estimable Institute for Government.

And few legal feats are beyond the wits of clever European Union and United Kingdom government lawyers in a crisis.

But such an alternative approach to extension would not be easy nor  can it be instant – it would be an elaborate patch and workaround.

For such an extension to put in place now – ten days before the end of the transition period, with the Christmas holidays and a weekend in the middle – would require extraordinary political goodwill and legal ingenuity.

And all to have the same effect as the opportunity squandered by the government in June 2020.

*

The decision to ‘cancel Christmas’ was, as this blog set out yesterday, not one any government would have wanted to make.

The fundamental mistake of this government was not to prepare people for the possibility – indeed probability – of this decision.

Days before the decision was made, the prime minister was loudly deriding the leader of the opposition on this very point.

Just click  below and watch and listen.

(Alongside this banality, the Secretary  of State for Education was also threatening a London council with a high court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.)

*

Had the prime minister and others been acting responsibly, and in the public interest, and given it appears that the government had known about the new coronavirus variant for some time, there should not have been derision of the opposition for the possibility of ‘cancelling Christmas’.

A prime minister and government acting responsibly, and in the public interest, would have been explaining that the public and businesses had to brace themselves for the possibility – indeed probability – of such restrictions and to prepare accordingly.

But the prime minister went for easy claps and cheers instead.

Again, populism prevailed over prudence.

*

Yesterday, this story was published by the government-supporting media.

The ugly truth, however, is that every single significant error in Brexit and with coronavirus has been because of the UK government ‘playing to its domestic audience’.

Every single one.

*****

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

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‘Cancelling Christmas’ days after deriding the possibility shows how the prime minister is caught in the trap of populism

20th December 2020

Just days ago, at the last Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), this exchange took place.

Click and watch it.

At this point, the prime minister knew that there was a real risk that, to use the phrase, ‘Christmas would have to be cancelled’ – at least for London and the south east.

A responsible prime minister would have used the moment of PMQs – where there is a platform both before elected representatives and before the media and public – to prepare people for this sad possibility.

(Indeed, it may be that on Wednesday he knew that it was far more than a possibility.)

But what did this prime minister do instead?

He derided the leader of the opposition and he dismissed the risk.

We once had a prime minister – who was not without other faults – who candidly warned the public of sweat and tears.

We now have a prime minister who goes for claps and cheers.

Indeed, ‘populism’ can be illustrated, if not defined, by this prime minister sneering that others want to ‘cancel Christmas’ for claps and cheers – days before then having to cancel Christmas.

The constant putting-off of difficult decisions, and the promotion of easy answers.

(On this, this column by Rafael Behr is magnificent.)

Now some government-supporting politicians are spinning that this is a prime minister unafraid of difficult decisions.

This is untrue.

The difficult decision was not the one forced yesterday – there was by then no real choice – but at PMQs, where there was a choice to be made.

Does the prime minister tell members of parliament and the watching media and and public to brace themselves that something bad may happen – and to thereby give everyone time to plan accordingly – or does he go for the glib jibe?

Watch the footage again, and see what he decides to do.

It is difficult – genuinely – to imagine a more incompetent prime minister.

Yes, other government-supporting politicians – from the home secretary to the leader of the house of commons – would be just as dreadful.

But they would only be as bad in different ways.

For as, scientists tell us, one cannot go below absolute zero, one cannot go beneath a level of absolute incompetence.

No prime minister would have relished facing up to ‘cancelling Christmas’ for millions of people.

But our prime minister is caught in the trap of populism.

And politicians that can only play to the crowd invariably end up letting the crowd down.

*****

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

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Law is not magic – and lockdown regulations are not spells

19th December 2020

Of  course, law is not magic.

Magic is about old men in elaborate robes, in oddly furnished rooms, saying or setting down words in certain special orders that will then have real-world effects on those to whom those words are addressed.

Ahem.

In fact, law has a lot in common with magic – or, at least, magical thinking – and not only in the facetious characterisation above.

*

If we move from the courtroom to government, and indeed to the public more generally, there is a common view that to make a law against something is to deal  with it.

A thing should be banned, and so just putting some words on a piece of paper – or on a computer screen – and then saying some magic words – either

Izzywizzylet’s get busy!

or

‘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’

or some other similarly daft formula, the words will leap from the page – or the screen – and will change the world around us.

This is a habit of thought with which we are so familiar that is difficult to dislodge it from our minds.

But just setting out words, and chanting some special phrases, has little direct effect on anything – other than in respect of what meanings, concepts and values we in turn give to those words.

And with prohibitions, more is often needed for a thing to stop than for the words to have been typed ‘this thing is prohibited’.

*

For some people, a prohibition may be enough: they will know that a thing has been banned and will act – or not act – accordingly.

For others, however, the banned thing can just continue – it is just that there is a risk that further instances of the banned thing may now be attended with certain legal consequences and, ultimately, coercive sanctions.

A person faced with such a risk may chose to eliminate the risk and not do the prohibited thing, or they may instead manage or even disregard the risk.

But unless one is in a totalitarian society, the mere threat of a coercive sanction is not enough – most modern societies rely on government by consent, and the state does not have sufficient resources to police everyone completely.

Put simply: laws and sanctions are usually not sufficient to effect behavioural change.

Instead many prohibitions work not because of words on a page, or because of enforcement, but because the purpose of the ban is aligned with social norms and is accepted (broadly) as legitimate – that the ban makes sense and is for a good purpose and so will be respected.

If a prohibition is not accepted as legitimate –  if it does not make sense or seems unfair or disproportionate – then no amount of legal magic or coercive force will give effect to the prohibition.

The prohibition then just breaks down.

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And now we come to the lockdown regulations.

The belief appears to be that just by making laws against social activity – either during Christmas or otherwise – is by itself sufficient.

That the government should lock down more firmly – and if the government does not do this, then it will be the government to blame if the pandemic spreads.

But typing banny words are not enough, with or without magic phrases, and there is certainly not enough police to enforce such banny words.

A lockdown will only be effective if people actually regulate their social behaviour in reality.

The government could issue regulations until it is blue in its face, but if there is a disconnect with social behaviour, then it is futile.

(And the sensible response to this is unlikely to be ‘more laws!” and ‘harsher penalties!’ – just as it is rarely a solution to bang one’s head harder against the wall.)

*

Law and laws are only one aspect of how those who govern us can influence and control our behaviour, to get us to change from what we would otherwise do.

People have to understand the purpose and point of prohibitions, rather than to just be expected to comply with them when they are imposed.

And for this a government needs to be transparent and credible: there needs to be trust more than law, and policy rather than policing.

There needs to be leadership.

Resources need to be in place for testing, tracing, and treatments.

Fair account needs to be taken of other possible priorities, even if those other priorities are less important.

Prohibitions and coercive sanctions still have a role – but they are not sufficient by themselves.

In essence, a government needs to govern, and not just make laws.

That is what govern – ments do.

There should be no magic to this.

*****

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Fuzzy boundaries: law v policy and regulations v guidance

18th December 2020

Over at Prospect I have done a post on two fascinating paragraphs in the United Kingdom supreme court judgment this week on Heathrow expansion

(Prospect is now commissioning many accessible pieces about law – and so anyone interested in the law in practice should bookmark this ‘Law’ page on Prospect’s new website.)

The two paragraphs in that judgment provide a judicial definition of the phrase ‘government policy’.

In essence, ‘government policy’ when used in a statute means a formal written statement of an established policy.

A ‘government policy’ is not thereby something which you can glean from oral ministerial statements in the house of commons, nor from official acts such as signing international conventions.

(Even though courts in other circumstances are able to refer to oral ministerial statements when construing legislation and, even though international treaties do not have direct effect in domestic law, courts can and do take notice of international obligations on certain questions.)

Nor is a ‘government policy’ something in flux – it has to be a final position.

Given that policies in most areas are as changing as the flow of a river, few policies will ever achieve this final happy state of legal grace.

The supreme court, in other words, defined ‘government policy’ as something which is like law – which of course is something judges and lawyers feel comfortable with.

And so just as courts, and the legal profession generally, tend to prefer people who are just like them, they now prefer policies that look just like laws.

Given that the Heathrow case was only about whether the government had taken account of its policy on climate change – not that it was bound by it but only that it had considered it – and given the government had admitted that it had not taken account of its policy – the supreme court judgment is remarkably and unduly restrictive.

(For what it is worth, I have no objection to Heathrow expansion, but those who do object are right to be irked at this judgment.)

*

But as the supreme court decides that ‘government policy’ is akin to law, the government of the United Kingdom is treating laws as akin to guidance.

This is the ever-changing regime of the coronavirus regulations.

This area of law is now so complex that the ‘Hercules’ judge posited by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin who could consider every possible legal authority on a give point would struggle to understand his position under the regulations.

Few if any police officers and, in turn, few citizens know what is law and what is guidance any more.

Some have suggested that this fuzziness does not ultimately matter.

Laws do need to be precise – especially criminal laws.

Criminal sanctions are life-changing events, and all citizens are entitled to know what the criminal law is so that they can regulate their own conduct accordingly.

(If you want to send a message, then use a carrier pigeon.)

*

A similar problem is with that dreadful, dishonest phrase ‘enshrined in law’ – a fairly sure sign that there is idiocy afoot, as no laws in the United Kingdom can be ‘enshrined’.

The Brexit departure date was supposedly ‘enshrined in law’ – but was changed anyway.

The. commitment on international aid budget was ‘enshrined in law’ – but this is to be side-stepped.

And, no doubt, there were those who thought that the explicit mention in the Planning Act of the need for consideration of government policy on climate change meant something or other was ‘enshrined in law’.

*

And then there is Brexit.

Brexit has followed a non-binding referendum, the result of which had no direct legal consequence.

But the referendum result was treated as if it were binding, in part because of what the government had said in pamphlet sent to every home during the campaign.

The government then triggered Article 50 – a highly significant legal act – but treated it as if it were a mere political gesture which did not need planning or thought as to the consequences.

Throughout Brexit the government has repeatedly toyed with illegality – in 2019 about forcing through a ‘no deal’ exit despite the will of parliament, and in 2020 with its illiberal and misconceived clauses in the Internal Markets Bill.

And, of course, the government has been found twice by the supreme court to be proposing or adopting an unlawful course of action.

The government itself often seems to have no clear view as to what is lawful and what is not, and what the difference is between law and non-law.

*

We now have policy as law, law as policy, regulations as guidance, and guidance as regulations.

All of which is framed in normative ‘should’ and ‘should not’ language.

And all of it blurring into a general fuzzy haze.

But the distinctions between law and non-law remain important, despite this fog.

Perhaps we can one day revert to laws being treated as laws, guidance as guidance, and policy as policy – each fulfilling their respective useful but distinct functions.

And perhaps this objective can itself be enshrined in a law, or perhaps not.

*****

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If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

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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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European Union law and the United Kingdom – an obituary

14th December 2020

Over at Prospect magazine my column for the Christmas/New Year special edition was an obituary – for European Union law in the United Kingdom.

Please go over there to have a read – and I just want to develop and add some points here.

*

European Union law is radically different from the common law of England and Wales (I am not qualified to speak of the laws of Scotland and Northern Ireland, though similar points may be valid).

By ‘radical’ I mean (literally) that it went to the root of things.

The effect of European Union law was not only to benefit particular policy areas (for example, employment and the environment and so on) – though there is no doubt that whole ranges of policy are better off for the influence of European Union law.

The impact of European Union was also to how one thought about law – and about policy and politics.

*

First, the law of the European Union is often ‘purposive’ – in which to understand any legal instrument (a directive or a regulation or a legally binding decision) one often has to go through pages of recitals, other materials, and even back to the ultimate bases of the the provision in the European Union treaties.

This, of course, can be an interesting – sometimes exciting – intellectual exercise but it really does not serve the purpose of legal certainty.

And often it was difficult to say with confidence what the ultimate tribunals of European Union law (the court of first instance and the court of justice) would say the law would be in any given situation.

And unlike courts in common law jurisdictions, the judgments of European Union law judges are often not reasoned but are instead declarative, even assertive.

As a general rule of thumb: a European Union legal instrument is as helpful and detailed as European Union court judgment is not.

*

Second, the public law of the European Union has a conceptual unity that the public law of England and Wales does not – or at least did not before the United Kingdom’s membership of the union and its predecessor European communities.

(Public law is the term for the law that regulates public bodies and those exercising public functions and provides for what rights can be enforced against them.)

In England and Wales we, in many respects, did not even have anything one could even call ‘public law’ until the 1960s.

There was instead a mix of actions and proceedings one could take against the crown, against statutory corporations, against courts, and against those holding various public offices.

European Union public law instead provided for a general approach to emanations of the state – and of the rights one could enforce against them.

The European Union legal concept of ‘proportionality’ (that is that a public body should only interfere with the rights of others to the extent necessary to serve a legitimate purpose) was also a welcome change to the brutal and permissive approach of our administrative law – which can be fairly described as allowing public bodies to get away with what they can, unless it is irrational.

*

Third, the European Union and its predecessor organisations are creatures of law as much as of policy and politics.

And although one should never underestimate the push and shove of policy and politics, when dealing with the European Union one always should have regard to law.

This was a recurring mistake for United Kingdom politicians.

For example, before the 2016 referendum there was an attempt by then prime minister David Cameron to force through a ‘deal’.

But as this blog has previously explained, the Cameron team wrongly thought it would just be a matter of bombast and confrontation – that the United Kingdom just needed to want something and to demand it loudly.

There were, however, real limits to what the European Union could agree to, at least without treaty changes.

And the same problem happened again and again during the exit negotiations and now the negotiations for the future relationship.

The European Union takes process and legal texts seriously, and the United Kingdom under Theresa May and Boris Johnson did not.

*

You will note that this post – and the Prospect column – are not unmixed celebrations of European Union law.

Instead, I have attempted a critical appraisal (though one set out simply and I hope accessibly).

And this is partly because my own ultimate view on Brexit is ambivalent.

In the early 1990s I believed that it would have been better for the United Kingdom to have left the European Union at the time of Maastricht treaty.

It seemed to me then that the trajectory of the European Union towards wider competencies (foreign policy and justice and home affairs) and currency union would not end well in respect of the United Kingdom.

(And it did not.)

But by around 2000 I thought any extraction of the United Kingdom from the European Union would not be worth the time and effort to deal with decades of entwined law and policy.

(And it has not been.)

*

The break of the law of the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom from the law of the European Union is going to be messy.

It is not going to be a neat clean break.

And the laws of the United Kingdom are not – thankfully – going to revert back to 1973.

The direct effect and application of European Union law in the United Kingdom may be over – and that is why an obituary is appropriate.

 Its influence, however, will continue for decades.

The United Kingdom may have ‘taken back control’ of its laws – but Brexit will certainly not free domestic law from the impact of the law of the European Union.

*****

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.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

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