Kaboom!!!

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash

The scenario

You’re a 22 year old man living with your mother in a terraced house in Coventry. You have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder since childhood. You have no criminal convictions. So far, completely unremarkable.

You get yourself into serious trouble with the law. You have been purchasing quantities of chemicals online for the purpose of converting these into Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (“HMTD”), which is a high explosive compound and, it should go without saying, very dangerous.

In these days of heightened awareness of terrorism and the threat from these types of activities, your behaviour is not very sensible. It is perfectly understandable that you might be viewed as a serious threat to national security – as well as a more immediate threat to the safety of your neighbours (you have been causing small explosions in your back garden).

Following a search of your home by Police (who are in possession of a warrant), you are charged under Section 4(1) of the Explosive Substances Act 1883 (legislation which also applies in Scotland).

Section 4(1) states as follows:

Any person who makes or knowingly has in his possession or under his control any explosive substance, under such circumstances as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that he is not making it or does not have it in his possession or under his control for a lawful object, shall, unless he can show that he made it or had it in his possession or under his control for a lawful object, be guilty of an offence …

You claim you’re not a terrorist, but why on earth would someone like you want to manufacture a high explosive compound such as HMTD? The potential consequences for you are severe if convicted: a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

By the way, it gets worse, because you are also charged under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 e.g. because you collect or make a record “of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

This is exactly what happened to Chez Copeland, who at one point wished to join the Armed Forces, but due to his disability was prevented from choosing such a career.

Defences?

Let’s go back to Section 4(1) of the Explosives Substances Act 1883 and examine its wording: is there any possible defence for your actions?

Perhaps. The suspect must be able to show that he has the substance in his possession or under his control for a “lawful object”.

So, the key question here is why would this young man want to have explosive materials in his possession? We’re asking a question about his mindset: does he have the necessary mens rea (guilty mind) to commit a crime? We know that the actus reus (the wrongful act) is present, but this is not a strict liability crime – it is essential for the prosecution to establish what was the intention of the accused.

In his defence, the accused provides us with some background. He was hugely influenced by the Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) which is about an American bomb disposal unit operating in Iraq. Ever since seeing the film, the accused has been fascinated about the science behind explosives and bomb making. He indulges in role-playing and develops an obsessive interest in this area.

Far from being involved in terrorist or criminal activities, the behaviour of our accused is firmly grounded in good old fashioned (and honest) scientific enquiry. He is, therefore, following the well trodden path of scientific discovery and experimentation.

Preparatory Hearing at the Crown Court

Sadly, for our accused, a preparatory hearing at Birmingham Crown Court does not bode well. His Honour Judge Mark Wall QC is not minded to permit the defence that the HTMD was in the possession or under the control of the accused for a “lawful object”.

Our accused appeals to the English Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) where his proposed defence is also rejected. The Appeal Court judges (Sir Brian Leveson P, Elisabeth Laing and Whipple JJ), like Judge Wall QC, place huge significance on an earlier precedent – R v Riding [2009] EWCA Crim 892. Let us proceed further …

The Riding precedent

In Riding, the accused had made a pipe bomb because, as he stated in his evidence: “I was curious and just experimenting.” As the Court of Appeal noted in this case:

The judge ruled that the reason that the defendant gave, that is to say curiosity whether he could construct it or not, was not capable of amounting to a lawful object and he so directed the jury.”

According to the Court of Appeal, this was the correct approach taken by the judge in the Crown Court. The defendant (Riding) was therefore guilty of an offence:

The short point in the case is whether it is correct that a lawful object is simply the absence of criminal purpose. We are satisfied that that is not what the Act says. The Act requires that if you are found in possession or have made an explosive substance in circumstances in which there is a reasonable suspicion that there is no lawful object, it is an offence unless there was in fact some affirmative object which was lawful. That is, as it seems to us, an entirely unsurprising provision for a statute to make, given the enormous danger of explosive substances generally.

Appeal to the UK Supreme Court

It would appear, therefore, that Chez Copeland’s prospects of avoiding a conviction and possible prison sentence were pretty bleak – if you follow the logic of the Riding precedent.

There was one chink of light for our accused, Mr Copeland, an appeal to the UK Supreme Court (and leave was duly granted by the Court of Appeal).

Lord Sales (delivering the majority opinion of the Court – Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen dissenting) held that Copeland was permitted to use the defence that his possession or control of the explosive substance was for a “lawful object”.

His Lordship then went on to detail the history of legislation which had regulated the personnel possession of gunpowder (and later explosives) by an individual. Significantly, he noted that:

In fact, there is a long and well-established tradition of individuals pursuing self- education via private experimentation in a range of fields, including with chemicals and explosives.

Interestingly, the Explosives Substances Act 1875 (predecessor of the Explosive Substances 1883 Act) acknowledged such legitimate purposes. The 1883 Act had been passed hastily to reassure a British public terrified of the actions of militant Irish Republicans.

The new Act was primarily geared towards the creation of additional criminal offences and, from my interpretation of Lord Sales’ historical summary, it’s hard to infer that the Westminster Parliament was breaking with long established tradition and thus making the mere possession of explosive material a criminal offence. If Parliament had intended this, it would have done so.

The practical regulation of the use and storing of explosives is currently addressed by the Explosives Regulations 2014 and, the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies these, clearly acknowledge that private individuals may lawfully manufacture or be in possession of explosive substances for their own personal use. That said, individuals who are manufacturing or storing explosive materials must be aware of the relevant guidelines which are presently in force.

Critically, Lord Sales was of the view that experimentation and self-education (which includes satisfying an individual’s curiosity) are lawful objects. This is well within the ordinary and every day meaning of the words “lawful object” in the 1883 Act. A defendant (such as Chez Copeland) will, therefore, be entitled to present this defence at trial, but of course a jury will have to weigh up the evidence presented and arrive at its own conclusions.

Interestingly, Lord Sales observed that in R v Riding [2009], the Court of Appeal had correctly dismissed the defendant’s appeal on the facts – the defendant (Riding) did not have a lawful object in proceeding to build a pipe bomb. Where the Court of Appeal had fallen into error in Riding, was to approach the remark that “mere curiosity simply could not be a lawful object in the making of a lethal pipe bomb” as effectively a “proposition of law” rather than treating this as a purely factual statement.

The dissenting view

The two dissenting Justices – Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen – were strongly in agreement with Judge Wall (in the Crown Court) and the Court of Appeal:

“Such detonations involve an obvious risk of causing injury and damage to property and causing a public nuisance. For such experimentation to be capable of being lawful it would be necessary to particularise how it was to be carried out so as to avoid any such risk or how it would otherwise be lawful.

Their Lordships went on to say:

We consider that the vague and generalised statements referring to personal experimentation and private education, whether considered individually or taken together, fail to provide sufficient particularity of how these claimed objects were to be carried out lawfully.”

That said, the views of Lords Lloyd-Jones and Hamblen did not prevail and Chez Copeland’s appeal was permitted to proceed.

Conclusion

The Explosive Susbtances Act 1883 and the Explosives Regulations 2014 and, the Explanatory Memorandum clearly acknowledges that private individuals may lawfully manufacture or be in possession of explosive substances for their own personal use.

In R v Copeland [2020], the UK Supreme Court has now ruled that experimentation and self-education (which includes satisfying an individual’s curiosity) are lawful objects. This is well within the ordinary and every day meaning of the words “lawful object” in the 1883 Act.

That said, individuals who are manufacturing or storing explosive materials must be aware of the relevant guidelines which are presently in force which impose upon them a heavy duty of responsibility to take care for the safety of other people and their property.

A defendant (such as Chez Copeland) will, therefore, be entitled to present the defence in Section 4(1) of the 1883 Act at a trial that explosive substances were in his possession or under his control for a “lawful object”. A jury will, of course, have to weigh up the evidence presented and arrive at its own conclusions on the facts.

Links to the Court of Appeal’s decision in R v Riding [2009] and the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R v Copeland [2020] respectively can be found below:

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2009/892.html

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2019-0089-judgment.pdf

A link to an article in The Independent about the UK Supreme Court’s decision can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.120320/data/9394451/index.html

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 March 2020

Presumption of innocence?

Photo by Kay on Unsplash

A deeply embedded principle?

Should the accused in a criminal trial enjoy the presumption of innocence?

This is a long established principle of criminal law in the Western World that I have taken for granted since my first days at university. I always remember Professor Kenny Miller (of Strathclyde University’s Law School) correcting students who spoke in error about the ‘guilty’ person in a Scottish criminal trial. They were quickly admonished and reminded of the maxim that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

Indeed, Article 11 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes the view that the presumption of innocence is a fundamental human right.

Furthermore, Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights establishes the right to a fair trial and this includes the presumption of innocence. In the United Kingdom, this very important right has been incorporated into Scots, English and Northern Irish law via the Human Rights Act 1998. In Scotland, we, of course, have an additional layer of protection with the Scotland Act 1998.

Article 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights also echoes Article 6 of the European Convention.

Going back to the historical record, the Byzantine or Roman Emperor Justinian I emphasised the presumption of innocence for the accused as part of codification of Roman Law between 529-534 CE. Admittedly, Justinian was building on previous Roman legal practice as the Emperor Antoninus Pius (he of the less well known Wall for our Scottish readers) had introduced the principle during his reign between 138 and 161 CE.

The Romans would say Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat; translated as Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.

Jewish and Islamic scholars have, historically, also placed huge importance on the presumption of innocence as a cornerstone of their legal practices. Both the Jewish Talmud and Islamic Hadiths (sayings or practices of the Prophet) testify to this.

The Carlos Ghosn Affair

So, why am I reflecting on this area this dull and rainy second day of the New Year?

The escape from Japan of Carlos Ghosn brought the principle forcibly to mind this New Year. Mr Ghosn is the former Chief Executive of Nissan who has been accused of defrauding his former employer.

Mr Ghosn was under effective house arrest in Japan until a few days ago. Allegedly, with the help of his wife, he escaped from that country to the Republic of Lebanon (of which he is a citizen) The escape reads like something from a Hollywood movie script (the Mission: Impossible series anyone?) with Mr Ghosn hiding in a musical instrument case (presumably not a violin case) in order to make good his unauthorised exit from Japan.

A link to an article about Mr Ghosn’s escape in The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.020120/data/9266461/index.html

A link to a YouTube film about the Affair can be found below:

https://youtu.be/BAxwWW5Ldqo

What is Mr Ghosn’s motivation for leaving Japan in this dramatic way? He claims to have no faith in Japanese justice in that the legal system of that country presumes his guilt.

The Japanese criminal justice system

Not possessing a great deal of knowledge about Japanese criminal practice, I admit that I was somewhat intrigued by Mr Ghosn’s assertions.

I had also just finished reading Owen Matthew’s excellent biography* of Richard Sorge, probably the most successful spy in modern history (and a possible role model for James Bond). Sorge had been spying for the Soviet Union in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s until he was unmasked and arrested in 1941. The treatment of Sorge at the hands of the Japanese criminal justice authorities forms part of the climax to the book.

As Owen Matthews notes:

Japanese justice, surprisingly, for an authoritarian state, turned out to be both thorough and scrupulous. The three volumes of investigative documents prepared by the Tokko [the Japanese Police] are exhaustive, far more professional than the cursory evidence which the NKVD [the forerunner of the Soviet KGB] assembled to convict hundreds of thousands of suspected spies in the 1930s.’ [p345]

Does the Japanese criminal code presume the guilt of persons on trial, as opposed to their innocence?

I decided to investigate …

… what I discovered was something rather more subtle.

The Japanese legal system does recognise the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise – despite Mr Ghosn’s claims. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution to demonstrate the guilt of the accused (as in Scotland, England, the United States etc).

There are indeed criticisms of the Japanese legal system that could be made (but no legal system is immune from criticism). In particular, the practice of not allowing suspects to have access to a lawyer during Police interrogation has been highlighted as a weakness of the system.

Before Scots lawyers get too smug, we would do well to remember the Peter Cadder case which led to an overhaul of Scottish criminal practice (see Cadder v HMA [2010] UKSC 43).

Another criticism of the Japanese legal system seems to centre around the practice of prosecutors rearresting an accused when s/he has been acquitted by a lower court. The accused is then taken before a superior criminal court for a further trial and, possibly, conviction.

That said, in Scotland (and in England), we have abolished the double jeopardy rule, but this does not mean that prosecutors have free range to do what they like.

Finally, an accused who maintains his/her innocence under the Japanese legal system, is often not granted bail and can therefore be expected to undergo a lengthy period of detention until the case is brought to trial (Mr Ghosn was perhaps luckier than most being under house arrest). Critics of this aspect of the legal system have pointed out that it puts suspects under duress making them more likely to make an admission of guilt. Mr Ghosn had apparently spent 120 days in detention before bail (with very strict conditions) was granted last year.

Links to articles about the Japanese legal system from the local media can be found below:

https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/c05403/at-the-mercy-of-the-system-criminal-justice-and-capital-punishment-in-japan.html

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20190109/p2a/00m/0na/015000c

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2003/12/09/issues/burden-of-proof-impossible-to-bear/#.Xg456i-nyhA

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/05/national/media-national/international-scrutiny-japans-criminal-justice-system-fair/#.XhUY0S-nyhA

Conclusion

The principle of presuming the innocence of the accused in a criminal trial until proven otherwise is a deeply rooted one in the Western World. It is a cornerstone of our justice systems. The United Nations regards it as a fundamental human right in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet, to assume that it is a Western concept alone, would be a monstrous conceit. Jewish and Islamic legal scholarship have both emphasised the importance of this principle.

Japan, as a member of the United Nations, also recognises the importance of the principle – which makes some of Mr Ghosn’s claims somewhat misjudged. Yes, the operation of the Japanese criminal justice system can and is the subject of criticism, but this observation also applies to every other legal system in the World.

* “An Impeccable Spy – Richard Sorge – Stalin’s Master Agent” by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019)

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 2 January 2020

Civil partner? I do!

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

As of today (31 December 2019), heterosexual couples in England and Wales will be able to enter civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.

This change does not yet extend to Scotland: the Scottish Government has introduced its own Bill to introduce civil partnerships for heterosexual couples.

An info graphic showing the current progress of this Bill in the Scottish Parliament (Stage 1) can be seen below:

When the Labour Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair originally introduced civil partnerships across the UK (as a result of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004) such legal unions were open to gay and lesbian couples only.

It was the first time in the history of Scots and English family law that gay and lesbian couples were entitled to enter a legally recognised relationship.

Fast forward a decade or so and we now have same sex marriage in Scotland, England and Wales – but not yet Northern Ireland (although the clock may be ticking here on this issue). Admittedly, same sex couples can enter civil partnerships in Northern Ireland, but since the Republic of Ireland made same sex marriage legal in 2015, pressure has been mounting for change in the North.

The case which started the ball rolling was Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education [2016] EWHC 128 (Admin).

In Steinfeld and Keidan, an unmarried, heterosexual couple brought a claim for unlawful less favourable treatment against the UK Government on the basis that the law (contained in the Civil Partnership Act 2004) discriminated against them by forcing them to enter marriage as opposed to their preferred option of a civil partnership arrangement. The couple had strong “ideological objections” to marriage (irrespective of whether it took a religious or civil form) and argued, amongst other things, that the failure by the United Kingdom to give them the option of entering a civil partnership was a potential breach of their Article 8 rights (the right to privacy and family life) in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ban on civil partnerships for heterosexual couples was also a potential breach of the Equality Act 2010 in the sense that it represented direct discrimination on grounds of a person’s sexual orientation. 

Initially, the English High Court rejected the challenge brought by Steinfeld and Keidan, whereupon the case was allowed to proceed to the English Court of Appeal. Although expressing sympathy for Steinfeld and Keidan’s predicament, the Lord Justices of Appeal refused to overturn the ban (see Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education [2017] EWCA Civ 81).

The couple were then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.

On 27 June 2018, the Supreme Court issued its decision: R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary) [2018] UKSC 32.

Lord Kerr gave the leading judgement (with which his fellow Justices concurred) and allowed Steinfeld and Keidan’s appeal:

I would allow the appeal and make a declaration that sections 1 and 3 of CPA [Civil Partnership Act 2004] (to the extent that they preclude a different sex couple from entering into a civil partnership) are incompatible with article 14 of ECHR taken in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the UK Government of former Prime Minister Theresa May initiated steps to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in respect of the law for England and Wales.

A link to an article about the change to the law in England and Wales on the Sky News website can be found below:

Civil partnerships: First mixed-sex couples celebrate union http://news.sky.com/story/civil-partnerships-first-mixed-sex-couples-celebrate-union-11898759

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/04/a-very-civil-partnership/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/20/love-and-marriage/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/08/the-gay-cake-row/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 December 2019

Enemies of the people?

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

Have British judges become too politicised?

Michael Howard, former UK Conservative Party Leader from 2003 until 2005 (and now, somewhat ironically, an unelected member of the House of Lords) certainly thinks so – and he hasn’t been afraid to make his views known on the subject during the last few days.

A link to an article in The Independent discussing Mr Howard’s remarks can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.291219/data/9262576/index.html

In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme, Mr Howard posited the question as to whether the law should be made by “elected, accountable politicians, answerable to their constituents and vulnerable to summary dismissal at election, or by unaccountable, unelected judges who can’t be removed”.

Sour grapes?

To some extent, we could accuse Mr Howard of sour grapes or dissatisfaction with a number of recent legal judgements which have gone against the express wishes of the previous UK Conservative Government (2017-19) which wished to prioritise the exit of the UK from the European Union (Brexit).

It is also worth remembering that Mr Howard’s tenure as British Home Secretary (the Minister of the Interior) from 1993 until 1997 was characterised by conflicts with judges who often ruled against Government policy when making decisions about applications for judicial review.

Brexit

As a long established Eurosceptic (and as one of the prime suspects for membership of the group of “3 b*stards” in former Prime Minister John Major’s cabinet (1992-97), you would not really have expected Mr Howard to be terribly happy about the lack of progress on Brexit (some three and a half years on from the Referendum of 23 June 2016).

In R (on the application of Miller and another) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5, the former Prime Minister, Theresa May was forced to concede that she personally could not trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union in order to begin the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Brexit wasn’t going to ‘get done’ without first having undergone a series of confirmatory votes in both Houses of the Westminster Parliament. The use of the Royal prerogative (the ancient powers of the Monarch) by the then Prime Minister to ignore Parliament was not an appropriate legal action in a modern democracy.

In Wightman and Others (Notification by a Member State of its intention to withdraw from the European Union – Judgment) [2018] EUECJ C-621/18 (10 December 2018), the Court of Justice of the European Union, in a preliminary ruling, stated that a member state which had initiated Article 50 proceedings to leave the EU could reverse its decision unilaterally without first seeking the consent of all the other member states.

The request for the preliminary ruling (in terms of terms of Article 267: Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) had been submitted by the Inner House of the Court of Session; but critically the action had been initiated by a group of democratically elected politicians (in the main).

In R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister (Respondent) Cherry and others (Respondents) v Advocate General for Scotland (Appellant) (Scotland) [2019] UKSC 41 (On appeals from: [2019] EWHC 2381 (QB) and [2019] CSIH 49), the proverbial really hit the fan when the UK Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) that the decision by current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to suspend or prorogue the Westminster Parliament for 5 weeks was nothing less than unlawful.

As Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court, stated:

It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from 9th or 12th September until 14th October. We cannot speculate, in the absence of further evidence, upon what such reasons might have been. It follows that the decision was unlawful.

The Human Rights Act 1998

The mask really slips from Mr Howard’s face (possibly revealing something of the night about him?) when he turns his ire upon the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998. He begins by acknowledging that the UK Parliament conferred powers on senior judges to determine whether UK legislation was human rights compliant and then blames the judges for this situation! As a former barrister, Mr Howard really should know better.

Opponents of human rights legislation have always beaten the drum that the discretion given to (unelected) judges to attack or strike down laws which are deemed not to comply with those parts of the European Convention are a threat to British democracy. In the febrile atmosphere of Brexit, judges are now acutely aware that they can and will be accused of meddling in politics.

As I have previously remarked, statements such as Mr Howard’s recent remarks are factually incorrect when viewed through the prism of Westminster legislation. It soon becomes apparent that his arguments are highly misleading because all that superior court judges can do is to issue a declaration of incompatibility if a particular law or legal provision is found not to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

The declaration of incompatibility is like a football referee issuing a yellow card: foul play is being acknowledged, but the player remains on the field … for now. It will then be over to the Westminster Parliament (as the highest legal authority in the land) to bring in corrective measures to ensure that the law is changed, but this is Parliament’s decision alone

The consequences of declaring UK parliamentary legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights can be fully appreciated if we refer to the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Nicklinson) Ministry of Justice (CNK Alliance Ltd intervening) [2014] UKSC 38:

An essential element of the structure of the Human Rights Act 1998 is the call which Parliament has made on the courts to review the legislation which it passes in order to tell it whether the provisions contained in that legislation comply with the Convention. By responding to that call and sending the message to Parliament that a particular provision is incompatible with the Convention, the courts do not usurp the role of Parliament, much less offend the separation of powers. A declaration of incompatibility is merely an expression of the court’s conclusion as to whether, as enacted, a particular item of legislation cannot be considered compatible with a Convention right. In other words, the courts say to Parliament, ‘This particular piece of legislation is incompatible, now it is for you to decide what to do about it.’ And under the scheme of the Human Rights Act 1998 it is open to Parliament to decide to do nothing.”

Judicial Review

It is also apparent that Mr Howard is not a big fan of judicial review: he obviously thinks that this area of the law has expanded. True, it has but this is because the role of Government across the UK has dramatically expanded since the Second World War. This is due to a large part with the expansion of the Welfare State. Government policies which affect education, employment, health, immigration, taxation etc can be challenged by members of the public via an application for judicial review before either the Court of Session (Scotland); the High Court (England and Wales); and the High Court (Northern Ireland).

Conclusion

The UK has an unwritten Constitution – unlike other countries which have written constitutions (France, Germany, Italy and the USA). In political systems with a written constitution, there are often very clear rules governing the conduct of elected politicians.

This does not mean that, in political systems with written constitutions, the courts have no role to play. Of course they do.

It is an accepted part of the political culture of these countries that a Supreme Court or a Constitutional Court will be the final arbiter of very thorny legal and political issues e.g. the role of the US Supreme Court in legalising abortion (Roe v Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973)) or same sex marriage (Obergefell v Hodges576 U.S. ___ (2015)). They may be controversial in nature and generate heated debate for decades to come, but very few US citizens would contest the right of the Supreme Court to make such judgements.

As a point of contrast, note the hysteria which was generated when judges of the English High Court permitted Gina Miller’s action to succeed in blocking former Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union without, first, securing UK parliamentary approval (see R (Miller) Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5). 

The UK tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mail ran an astonishing front page on 4 November 2016 branding the judges “enemies of the people”. More prosaically, the High Court’s judgement (later approved by the UK Supreme Court in early 2017) was merely clarifying the law surrounding the Prime Minister’s use of the Royal prerogative in foreign affairs. You would not have thought this from the media and political reaction in certain quarters.

Governments, just as much as individuals, should think themselves to be above the law. The rule of law in a democratic society is a principle worth hanging on to.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 December 2019