The Queen’s Speech

Recently, I have been discussing with my students the creation of statutory criminal offences i.e. those created by Parliament (whether the U.K. or Scottish Parliaments). In particular, the group discussions have centred around the issue of whether the offence requires the accused to have mens rea (criminal intent or the guilty mind) when carrying out or attempting the actus reus (the wrongful act). Alternatively, the offence may be one of strict liability where mens rea is largely irrelevant. Strict liability offences include non-payment of a TV licence and some road traffic offences.

In relation to strict liability offences, the Crown (the prosecutor) merely has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the actus reus.

These issues were particularly pertinent because the Queen’s Speech had just taken place at Westminster on Tuesday 10 May 2022 (delivered by Prince Charles this year in his mother’s absence). This is a ceremonial occasion in the life of the U.K. Parliament, but it isn’t just for the tourists to come and gawp at. It’s the occasion where the U.K. Government sets out its legislative or law making proposals for the next year.

It used to be a very important occasion for Scotland, but since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 (the Devolution process), it has become less so. Many laws for Scotland are now made in Edinburgh.

That’s not to say that the U.K. Parliament can no longer pass laws for Scotland. That would be giving you a totally false impression: the U.K. or Westminster Parliament remains the supreme law making or legislative authority in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. That is a legal fact.

One of the Bills that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech this year was the Public Order Bill. This is a very controversial Bill because it aims to target and control the conduct and extent of public protests – particularly protests by environmental groups such as Insulate U.K. and Extinction Rebellion.

The section of the Queen’s Speech referring to the Public Order Bill

A link to the text of this year’s Queen’s Speech can be found below:

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/queens-speech-2022

When I was speaking to the students several days after the Queen’s Speech, I was saying that I would have to go and look at the text of the Public Order Bill in order to establish a number of things:

a) Does it apply to Scotland? The answer would appear to be no as the text of the Bill mentions England and Wales only.

b) Does it create strict liability criminal offences in relation to the practice of ‘locking on’; ‘obstruction etc of major transport works’; and ‘interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure’?

For locking on offences, the intention of the accused still seems to be critical, but regarding obstruction etc of major transport works, there could possibly be an element of strict liability.

Some screenshots from the text of the Public Order Bill can be seen below:

Front page of the Public Order Bill 2022
The proposed offence of locking on. Note the use of the words intend and reckless which are underlined in red

When the language of a Bill or an Act of Parliament uses words such as ‘wilfully’, ‘recklessly’ or ‘intentionally’ in connection with a criminal offence, it’s a fairly safe bet to conclude that the Crown must be able to demonstrate that the accused had the necessary mens rea when the actus reus occurred.

Some of the media commentary around the Public Order Bill was misleading to say the least – particularly in relation to the proposed offence of ‘locking on’. I picked up from several media outlets that this proposal involved the creation of a strict liability offence and, yet, the language of the Bill seems to suggest otherwise.

Section 2 (the proposed offence of being equipped for locking on). Note that the word intention appears in the text.
Section 3 of the Public Order Bill 2022. Note that the text does not contain any words or phrases which suggest that the mens rea of the accused is essential.

That said, Section 3 of the Bill (obstruction etc of major transport works), lacks clear references to the intention of the accused and this might suggest that Parliament intends to create a strict liability offence. Further clarity can, of course, be sought by studying the explanatory notes which accompany the Bill. It is worth pointing out that, even if this is an attempt by Parliament to create a strict liability offence, it could be blocked or amended as the Bill makes it way through the Commons and the Lords.

Sweet v Parsley [1969] UKHL 1

In the above (and often quoted) decision of the House of Lords, Lord Reid (in paragraph 6 of the judgement) made the following observations regarding statutory offences which require mens rea and those which are ‘absolute’ or ‘strict’:

“Our first duty is to consider the words of the Act: if they shew a clear intention to create an absolute offence that is an end of the matter. But such cases are very rare. Sometimes the words of the section which creates a particular offence make it clear that mens rea is required in one form or another. Such cases are quite frequent. But in a very large number of cases there is no clear indication either way. In such cases there has for centuries been a presumption that Parliament did not intend to make criminals of persons who were in no way blameworthy in what they did. That means that whenever a section is silent as to mens rea there is a presumption that, in order to give effect to the will of Parliament, we must read in words appropriate to require mens rea.”

A link to the decision of the House of Lords can be found below:

https://vlex.co.uk/vid/sweet-v-parsley-794063145

Conclusion

The Public Order Bill must now pass through the House of Commons and then the House of Lords before receiving the Royal Assent. Once the formality of the Royal Assent has taken place, the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament i.e. part of the law of the land (for England and Wales in any case).

I am jumping the gun somewhat: the Bill might have a stormy passage through Parliament. As if to prove my point, please see a recent Tweet from Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP:

We’ll just have to wait and see how matters develop.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 May 2022

State of emergency

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In a Blog published yesterday, I discussed the issue of entitlement to sick pay as a result of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/04/sick-pay-or-the-coronavirus-conundrum/

State of emergency

Governor Gavin Newsom of the US State of California declared a state wide emergency on Wednesday 4 March 2020 in order to counter the spread of the virus.

Please see a link below to an article in the Los Angeles’ Times concerning Governor Newsom’s announcement:

https://www.latimes.com/california/newsletter/2020-03-05/coronavirus-cruise-emergency-newsletter

How are the recent developments in California linked to events in the UK?

It should be recalled that Governor Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 5 of 2019 in January of this year. You don’t remember this? Well, Assembly Bill 5 is better known as the Californian Gig Economy law which, in effect, gives thousands of workers employment status. Significantly, this means that many of these affected individuals will now benefit from greater levels of employment protection – including entitlement to sick pay.

Now, think about this: had the COVID-19 outbreak occurred last year, many Californian workers would have had absolutely no entitlement to receive sick pay if such individuals were forced to self-isolate or take time off because they had been infected. No doubt many of these workers turned employees will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that they are now covered by Assembly Bill 5.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/13/california-dreamin/

The UK approach

Turning our attention to the UK, the British Government has taken a less generous approach to the issue of entitlement to sick pay. True, employees and other workers who already benefit from entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) should now be able to claim this from day 1 of sickness absence. It should be emphasised that this is a temporary measure justified on emergency grounds.

Previously, statutory sick pay was payable only from day 4 of the employee’s absence until Prime Minister Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons on Tuesday 3 March 2020.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the opposition Labour Party, immediately asked the PM if zero hours workers and self-employed individuals would have this benefit extended to them. The PM’s response to Mr Corbyn’s question will have disappointed many of these individuals. No entitlement to statutory sick pay for them. The problem for these individuals is that they do not meet the eligibility threshold where they earn £118 per week (the Lower Earnings Limit).

There is also the small fact that employment status (which is linked to entitlement to sick pay) is defined by the Employment Rights Act 1996. Section 230 of the Act defines an employee as an individual who has a contract of service. Many employment rights flow from this status and this means that many individuals who are engaged on a contract for services will simply not be eligible to claim statutory sick pay.

A link to an article in The Mirror newspaper about the exchanges in the House of Commons between PM Johnson and Mr Corbyn about SSP entitlement can be found below:

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/breaking-new-coronavirus-sick-pay-21629942

An evolving position?

… and yet, the UK Government’s thinking on this issue may be quickly evolving. On the BBC’s Question Time television programme broadcast on Thursday 5 March 2020, Matt Hancock MP, the UK Health Secretary said that people on zero hours contracts and self-employed persons should not be financially penalised for doing the right thing i.e. self-isolating themselves or being honest about having the virus.

It will be interesting to see how the story develops and what changes to UK employment law may follow as a result.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 March 2020

Banning smoking in the streets of Paris …

Photo by Paul Gaudriault on Unsplash

If anyone or anything wanted to ban smoking in the streets of Paris, you would think that (logically), this would be a matter for the French National Assembly or even Paris City Council (Conseil de Paris).

… And you would be quite correct.

You might be thinking what relevance does this have to Scots or indeed English law?

The supremacy of Parliament (or its limits)

The constitutional lawyers amongst the Blog readership, however, might guess where I’m going with the title. When studying the area of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty many, many years ago, I was struck by the words of Sir Ivor Jennings QC, a very famous British constitutional lawyer.

Jennings was explaining that the Westminster Parliament, as the supreme law making body in the UK, had the power to pass any law – even making it unlawful to smoke cigarettes or cigars in the streets of Paris. Now Jennings fully appreciated that this was a slightly absurdist statement; that wasn’t his point (to which I shall return shortly).

Would our French neighbours obey such an Act of the Westminster Parliament? They would not; quite rightly recognising that such a law lacked any legitimacy in their eyes.

So, what was Jennings driving at when he uttered his remark about the scope of the law making powers of the Westminster Parliament? He was recognising that Parliament could pass any law that it wished irrespective of how absurd it was or how unlikely it was to be obeyed in practice.

The English have placed great emphasis on the notion of parliamentary sovereignty. This principle, of course, can be challenged. The American colonists who participated in the protest popularly known as the Boston Tea Party in 1773 were directly challenging Westminster parliamentary supremacy. Several years later, with the successful conclusion of the American Revolution, it would be the new legal order of the United States of America that would supplant the British parliamentary tradition and thus make it a matter of history.

In 1919, Irish Republicans refused to send Members of Parliament to take their seats at Westminster following the UK General Election of 14 December 1918. Instead 27 Sinn Fein MPs chose to sit in Dáil Éireann (effectively an embryonic Irish National Assembly) in Dublin. Highly unconstitutional in British eyes; yes but it spelled the beginning of the end for Westminster parliamentary sovereignty in 26 of the 32 counties comprising the Island of Ireland.

More recently, in 1965, the White minority Government of the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia (under the leadership of Premier Ian Smith) declared independence unilaterally from the mother country. There was very little that the Westminster Parliament and British Government could do to prevent this situation. The Rhodesian Government would ultimately be brought crashing down to earth because of the armed struggle of the Black majority liberation movement. This would eventually lead to independence and majority rule for the territory (to be known as Zimbabwe).

Brexit

To return to Sir Ivor Jennings, his remarks about smoking in the streets of Paris were brought home to me today when reading about the remarks made by Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, about Brexit.

Mr Coveney was being asked about the implications of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – introduced in the House of Commons by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly after his Conservative Party won the General Election of 12 December 2019.

This Bill has just passed through the Commons and will now go on to the House of Lords (where it will pass) and receive the Royal Assent in the next week or two. The exit of the UK from the EU will happen by 31 January 2020.

Mr Coveney was not taking exception to this development. In fact, he was merely pointing out some hard realities for the British Prime Minister. The easy part of Brexit will have been completed, but the harder part remains: concluding a trade deal between the UK and the EU by the British Government’s self-imposed deadline of December 2020. Needless to say, this date has not been accepted by the remaining 27 EU member states.

Mr Coveney noted that a provision of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (currently Clause 33) prohibits the UK Government from extending negotiations with the EU 27 in order to obtain a trade agreement if one is not concluded before the end of 2020:

“I know that Prime Minister Johnson has set a very ambitious timetable to get this done. He has even put it into British law, but just because a British parliament decides that British laws say something doesn’t mean that that law applies to the other 27 countries of the European Union and so the European Union will approach this on the basis of getting the best deal possible – a fair and balanced deal to ensure the EU and the UK can interact as friends in the future. But the EU will not be rushed on this just because Britain passes law.”

Conclusion

When Sir Ivor Jennings made his oft quoted remark about parliamentary legislative powers, he was acknowledging the theoretical supremacy of Westminster. I also believe that he used the particular example of banning smoking in the streets of Paris to demonstrate the clear limits of Westminster supremacy i.e. practical and political realities will often combine to frustrate the will of Parliament.

In speaking today in the terms that he did, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister clearly recognises this reality.

Does the UK Government?

A link to an article on the Sky News website about Simon Coveney’s remarks can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/eu-will-not-be-rushed-in-post-brexit-talks-irish-deputy-simon-coveney-warns-11907060

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 12 January 2020