The myths of ‘arrogant judicial power’ and ‘human rights gone mad’ and the Dolan judgment

5th December 2020

A ‘myth’ is often a word we use to describe a thing we disagree with.

But sometimes the word has its uses.

Some things are believed in as true without evidence or despite the evidence.

Take the example the prevalence in modern politics of two views about the relationship between the courts and politics.

The first view is that there is an over-reaching judiciary: that judges are often deciding matters of policy and other political questions against the government and parliament.

The second view is that the law of human rights has ‘gone too far’ and beyond the limits of common sense.

And now take the Dolan case on the legality of the coronavirus lockdown regulations, which this blog considered yesterday.

This was a case where the government had, in effect, legislated by decree – without any prior parliamentary scrutiny and approval – so as to remove fundamental rights of movement, of assembly, of public worship, of being able to trade lawfully and so on.

These widest possible blanket prohibitions one could imagine, all done with no real consideration of the proportionality of each measure and with no accountability.

Law and policy as sledgehammer.

If there was ever a case where there should be anxious scrutiny of the use of delegated legislation this was it.

The courts would surely surely step in, where the legislature had been sidelined.

After all, we have an over-reaching judiciary and human rights law is powerful.

Of course not.

Both the court of appeal and the court of first instance could not have sided more with the executive if they had wanted to do so.

Each fundamental right was a mere tick box for the court to approve the interference by the state.

The reasons for this outcome are familiar to anyone with a detailed interest in public law.

Our courts are invariably deferent to the executive on matters of policy.

The few cases where the government is defeated often turn on their own extraordinary facts.

And human rights law in the United Kingdom is weak and usually impossible to rely on in any practical case.

Almost all the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, for example, are ‘qualified rights’, which mean that it is not difficult for an executive to interfere with those rights when it says it is in the public interest to do so.

And so the most illiberal legal measures in peacetime could be imposed by the government without prior parliamentary scrutiny and approval, and the courts could not nod any harder at the government doing this.

(My own view, as I set out yesterday, is that even if the individual measures were warranted at a time of a public health emergency, the measures should have been done via Civil Contingencies Act, which provides for detailed legislative and judicial oversight, and not through the Public Health Act which meant no real legislative and judicial oversight at all.)


There is a famous statement by a judge in a case during the second world war – a statement which every law student knows.

This is Lord Atkin in Liversidge v Anderson:

‘In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace. It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law.’

But what most law students also forget is that this was said in a dissenting judgment: Lord Atkin was in a minority.

The depressing fact is that in England there is often almost little to nothing the courts can or will do against executive action, even when there is no prior parliamentary approval for the measures imposed.

Courts and judges are far better at finding reasons not to intervene than to do so.

If the Human Rights Act, for example, had a quarter of the power which its populist detractors accuse it of having, the Dolan case would not have been so one-sided.

Yes: it was a public health case, but that should make a court more anxious in its scrutiny of emergency legislation, not less.

To paraphrase Lord Atkin: amid a pandemic, the laws should not be silent.

Those who promote the views that there is an over-reaching judiciary and that the law of human rights has ‘gone too far’ do not care about this, of course.

For these cherished views are their myths, and so they will stick with them.

But these views are, in fact, fantasies.

We do not have an over-reaching judiciary and the law of human rights has not ‘gone too far’ – and the Dolan case shows this.


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Freedoms vs Permissions – a liberal look at the Court of Appeal judgment on the coronavirus regulations

4th December 2020

A few days ago the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the Dolan case.

This was an application for judicial review of the regulations restricting freedom of movement and other fundamental rights which were introduced in England earlier this year at the beginning of the pandemic.

The challenge was ultimately not successful, as the leading legal blogger Matthew Scott explains in this thread.

There are a couple of things in the judgment that are interesting from a liberal perspective.


First, it was the approach of the court to the exercise of a freedom.

The classic model of freedom in a common law jurisdiction (such as England) is, of course, that one is free to do what one wishes – unless there is a specific prohibition.

This is the sort of liberty emphasised by those who trumpet freedom under the common law.

The court, however, seemed quite relaxed at this position being inverted under the regulations – that the starting point is that everyone is prohibited from doing what they want in respect of freedom of movement and assembly, unless there was a permission.

For the court there was nothing wrong with a general bans as long as there were exceptions where a person can satisfy the police and the courts that you had a ‘reasonable excuse’.

Here is the court’s reasoning on freedom of movement.

And then on freedom of assembly.

To make this observation is not necessarily to criticise the position of the court but instead to draw attention at how easily the court accepted the reversal of the classic model of freedom in the common law system.

The phrase ‘reasonable excuse’ has a nice nod-along quality that will make many people think ‘what could possibly be wrong with that?’.

Nonetheless it hands the decision on whether what you are doing is permissible to an official (or the court), and it will be they and not the individual who is the arbitrator of whether an excuse is reasonable or not.

And to take the position to an extreme: imagine a system where everything was prohibited unless an official (or the court) was satisfied you had a reasonable excuse.

That a person was never free to do anything, only to have the reasonable permissions of the authority.

What could possibly be wrong with that?


In contrast with the ease with which the court accepted restrictions on the autonomy of the individual, the judges saw no need to exercise judicial control on the government’s own freedom of choice.

Back in March 2020 the government had a choice on how to regulate so as to restrict the fundamental freedoms of individuals.

On one hand, it could use the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 – a dedicated statute for dealing with emergencies with an exacting scheme providing for legislative and judicial supervision.

Or it could blow off the dust of the Public Health Act 1984, where it could impose wide prohibitions without real legislative control, where criminal sanctions and restrictions can be casually made and revoked without there being any prior votes in parliament and only the academic prospect of judicial review.

The government, of course, chose the latter.

And the court of appeal, that held that individuals should be banned for things unless they have reasonable excuses, afforded the government a complete free choice of which statute to use.

At paragraph 77 of the judgment:

“[The applicant] pointed to various differences in the procedure and timetable for the laying of regulations under the two different Acts: see, for example, section 27 of the 2004 Act, which deals with Parliamentary scrutiny of emergency regulations made under that Act. We do not consider that this detracts from the fundamental point that the Secretary of State may well have had a choice of options and could have acted under the 2004 Act. It does not follow that he was required to do so; nor that he is somehow prevented from using the powers which Parliament has conferred upon him in the 1984 Act, as amended.”

The government thereby gets the benefit of a ‘fundamental’ right to choose, even if citizens do not.


None of the above means that the individuals should not comply with the coronavirus regulations – and it is emphatically correct that in a public health emergency of a pandemic, there should be be restrictions on the rights of individuals.

This post draws attention to how the court of appeal has gone about dealing with this challenge to the regulations.

Instead of anxious scrutiny of whether the broad prohibitions went further than necessary, the court of appeal seemed too ready to accept that the government can side-step at will a scheme designed to ensure proper legislative and judicial scrutiny of highly restrictive legislation.

A better decision of the court of appeal would have been to say that there was a presumption that in an emergency the government uses the legislation that provides more legislative and judicial scrutiny – unless it has (ahem) a reasonable excuse not to do so.


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