Rightful Liberty

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” [Thomas Jefferson]

“The common law can first of all be understood as the law imposed on the institutions of Anglo Saxon England by the Norman invaders in 1066. So ‘the common law’ begins to take sense in that it is the law that relates to everyone. Not just the people in Mercy or Wessex, or wherever these distinctions between these Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions lay. Over time “the common law” becomes used to denote the law replied by the courts the kings court as developed through the system of precedent.”

“Common law is used to describe all those rules of law that have evolved through court cases (as opposed to those which have emerged from Parliament) over the past 800 years. Despite the growth of statute, English law is still generally understood in common law terms.” (Holland and Webb 2016, p. 14)

“Roman law had an important influence on the common law. This is another massive historical question and, of course, Roman law has a major influence on most civilian legal systems that one finds throughout the world today.

There are important commentaries written on the common law in the medieval period. Henry Debracton for instance, writing in 1235. However, Sir William Blackstone (1723 to 1780) is another major point of reference.

Blackstone was a Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, one of the common law courts at the time, and a commentator on the common law. He wrote one of the most influential and systematic studies of the common law, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, between 1765 and 1769. This text describes the common law as an unwritten law, in contrast with the written law of statutes or codes. Blackstone presented the common law as a form of oral tradition, derived from general customs, principles and rules handed down from generation to generation by the court lawyers and judges, who participated in the common life or in the common life of lawyers in the ends of courts to which they all belonged. Eventually, this old tradition was reflecting the reports of decision or at least the reports of the more important courts, and this knowledge was stored in written form, nanamely the Law or Case Reports. Now it is important to bear in mind that there was no organised system of court report until the late 19th century. And prior to that, all reports were really reported by private initiatives. The key point to bear in mind here is that common law is linked to archives, to case reports. To be a common lawyer, is to know your cases, is to know how the law develops through cases. Historically, the common law tradition has always placed the judiciary, the judge, at the center of things. Judicial decisions are seen as constituting the written law, a body of maxims, precedents, ported decisions that constantly need to be rationalised and developed into a coherent system.

“English law was regarded as bastard law – technically speaking – law without a father. It evolved through hundreds and thousands of decisions in the resolution of practical cases, and out of these hundreds of thousands of decisions, some were written down. And when they were written down, they were reconciled by judges sitting in the ins of courts, discussing for a long time. The decision making was very much an oral tradition. And then as a law reporting came along, being written in the lower portraits with very variable quality indeed. With those records judges of appeal were being able to look through the principles that were held out as a reasoning for the decision – trying to work out whether these principles were rational, consistent, and whether they actually justify the practical outcome.”

The next point relates to Acts of Parliament, also known as statutes or legislation. There are two sources of law for a common lawyer, the common law itself and Acts of Parliament. Although the common law is judge made and case law remains a source of law, influential legal reformers active in the early 1800s were critical of what they saw as the incoherent nature of case law. They drew on traditions of British political thinking that focused on the importance of sovereign power rather than the law-making power of the judge. In particular, Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan (1660), provided an important reference point.

Hobbes argued that there should be one single source of sovereign power in a nation. Political events allowed this source of power to be associated with parliament. In the influence of other radical thinkers like Jeremy Bentham (1748 to 1832) and John Austin (1790 to 1859) what was known as ‘the positivists approach to law’ further developed. The positivists stressed the importance of a coherent logical analysis of the law. Bentham pushed forward various reform projects that were designed to give the law a single informic philosophy. Bentham disliked the old-fashioned nature of the common law, like you can get to a crumbling gothic mansion. Law had to become modern and be linked to the rational government of a country. By the late 19th century, Statutes, or Acts of Parliament, had become a major source of law in England and Wales. The state took on increasing responsibility for economic management and social regulation. The volume of statute law continued to grow. While Bentham might not have agreed with the growth of state power and certainly did not anticipate the welfare state of the late 20th Century, it would certainly be fair to say that the social and economic policy required a great deal of legislation.

According to Heart (1961) two rules of recognition allow us to specify the sources of UK law: cases and statutes. Statutes are the supreme source of law, a fact that recognises the sovereignty of parliament. This element of law reflects the legitimacy of parliament. Judges have a law making power to develop the rules of the common law. However, although this power is subordinate to parliament it should properly be seen as a law making power. The development of the common law is guided by the doctrine of precedent. This means that cases that are judged to be similar are decided in the same way. In order to understand what judges are doing, we need to see judicial reasoning as a process, a structure, as a way of thinking that allows the common law to develop coherently. It also limits judicial lawmaking because one has to remember that although judges have a lawmaking power, it is subordinate to that of parliament.”

London Tramways v London City Council is a case from 1898 that shows how the judges understood the role of the court at the end of the nineteenth century. Lord Halsbury had a very particular vision of how the House of Lords had to approach cases. He argued that:

“ I do not deny that cases of individual hardship may arise, and there may be a current of opinion in the profession that such and such a judgment was erroneous; but what is that occasional interference with what is perhaps abstract justice, as compared with the inconvenience…of having each question subject to being re-argued and the dealings of mankind rendered doubtful by reason of different decisions, so that in truth there is no final court of appeal. My Lords, “interest rei publicae” is that there should be “finis litium” sometime and there can be no finis litium if it were possible to suggest in each case that it might be re-argued because it is “not an ordinary case” whatever that may mean.”

“Unlike most nations, Britain does not have a single document that forms its constitution, though it is often referred to the fact that Britain has an unwritten constitution. One of its central ideas is that parliament is sovereign. This means that parliament can make or repeal any law that it likes. It can over rule parts of the common law. It can overrule earlier statutes. This is true then of the Human Rights Act and the European Communities Act. The European Communities Act that makes effectively the United Kingdom part of the European Union, and the Human Rights Act that makes the law of European Human Rights part of the common law of the United Kingdom.”

[Professor Adam Gearey in an introduction to common law – unless otherwise indicated by quotes]

“It is one of the great merits and advantages of the common law, that instead of a series of detailed practical rules, established by positive provisions, and adapted to the precise circumstances of particular cases, which would become obsolete and fail, when the practice and course of business to which they apply, should cease or change, the common law consists of a few broad and comprehensive principles, founded on reason, natural justice, and enlightened public policy.” [Norway Plains Co v Boston & Maine Railroad (1845, 1 Gray, at 263)]

It is therefore its greatest advantage that the common law consists of broad principles drawn from reason, natural justice and public policy that can be flexibly applied. In a case called Bulmer v Bollinger, Lord Denning comes up with a very striking metaphor: That the law of the EU is like a tide flowing up the estuaries, flowing into Britain and mingling with the rivers of the common law to produce a single body of law. There has always been an interchange between the United Kingdom and the Continent, and that is true in the 1100s, the 1200s, and in 2016. And if we go way back, then we find that the common route is Roman law.

Comments (8)

  1. The Editor (Post author)
    “In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”

    [Immanuel Kant]

  2. The Editor

    Sovereignty of Parliament

    A major text in English jurisprudence or political philosophy is H.L.A. Hart’s “The Concept of Law” (1961) where he uses a general idea how the sovereignty of parliament can be understood. Hart’s idea of what lies behind a legal system is a rule of recognition. A rule that allows us to say: here are the rules of the legal system – as opposed to any other system, social or economic, that also makes use of rules. According to Hart’s interpretation, behind recognition lies the idea of the crown and parliament. Or in other words, parliamentary sovereignty. This idea that the rule of recognition allows us to identify the rules of the legal system and also point at the supreme law making power in the constitution. Hart’s notion of the rule of recognition allows us to say: here are the rules of the legal system and here is the fundamental rule of the legal system itself. In other words, the rule that relates to the ultimate lawmaking power in a state.

  3. The Editor (Post author)

    One of the major writers on the British Constitution is A.V. Dicey. He is most widely known as the author of “Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution” (1885). The principles it expounds are considered part of the uncodified British constitution and say that parliamentary sovereignty is described through three rules:

    1. Parliament is the supreme lawmaking body and may enact laws on any subject matter
    2. One of the problems here is that parliament sounds tyrannical. It can change any law that it likes and there is nobody that can stop it. L. Wolf-Phillips (1972) gave a particularly pointed way of thinking this problem through. He asked if parliament could pass a law condemning all blue eyed babies to death? The answer that Phillips comes up with, and this comes back to Dicey, is both yes and no. If we are saying that parliament is sovereign and parliament can change any law that it likes and that there is nobody that can overrule parliament, then it would certainly follow from that that parliament can make a law murdering blue-eyed babies or any of these things which would strike us as horrific. Will parliament do this? This is a different question. Parliament wouldn’t do this because of the realities of politics.
      There is a distinction between legal and political sovereignty. As far as the political sovereignty of parliament is concerned, it is limited. It is limited by the democratic accountability of parliament to the people. Parliament is not politically absolute. It is politically limited throughout the period of a government, and it is ultimately accountable to the people when there is a general election. It is limited by its accountability to the people. And also perhaps to the general rules, practices, conventions, and understandings that have themselves grown up in politics – by the politically possible. Could a parliament legally create a statute that abolishes private ownership of motor vehicles? Yes, it could. Would it do that? It would be political suicide, the end of that government. And that gives a fairly good understanding of the dynamic of parliamentary sovereignty.

    3. No parliament may be bound by a predecessor or bind a successor
    4. No parliament can create an act that is binding on a future parliament, and no parliament is compelled to follow an act laid down by an earlier parliament. In terms of strict legal theory, this is the continuing theory of parliamentary sovereignty. This rather technical term is explained by Ian Loveland (2015) that the sovereign parliament is a perpetual institution, its unconfined legislative power is created every time it meets – irrespective of what previous parliaments have enacted.
      Politically, that takes us back to the previous question. Would a parliament be bound by referendum passed by an earlier parliament? Legally that later parliament can change its mind. It is not bound by that referendum. Politically, whether or not the government would want to do that, is another question.

    5. No person or body, including a court of law, may question the validity of parliament’s enactments
    6. Dicey’s third rule that relates to parliamentary sovereignty is the idea that no court effectively may question the validity of parliament’s enactments. In opposite to Germany for example, no British court has the power to strike down an Act of Parliament – the power to declare that an act is null or void by reference to the constitution. That is not the case in the United Kingdom. Although there is a supreme court, it cannot strike down acts of parliament. That would be a constitutional revolution.

  4. The Editor

    The Human Rights Act

    One of the reasons why Britain got the Human Rights Act in 1998, and not during the period of conservative government, is that this is a political activity. It is a political attempt to change the checks and balances in the British Constitution. Which reflects in part the political understanding that Parliament had become too powerful. That the risk within the constitution of a sovereign parliament is that there are insufficient checks and balances on that parliament. To the labour government’s understandig, political sovereignty, the fact that a government can be voted out, does not provide either sufficient limits on what parliament is doing or indeed allow thriving development of public culture. What lies behind the Human Rights Act is a political understanding of what was wrong with the constitution.
    One of the things that the courts can do with the Human Rights Act is to issue what is called a “declaration of incompatibility”. If a government act was in breach of convention obligations, the declaration of incompatibility would be an invitation to the relevant minister to consider this fact – to consider the fact that an act of parliament was in breach of European human rights. It doesn’t say that the minister has to change the law because that again would bring the end of parliament sovereignty. Therefore, it is an invitation to change the law – the minister may choose not to do so.
    Secondly, the Human Rights Act allows the courts to interpret British law in the context of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. This is giving the British courts the chance to develop human rights principles, to develop interpretations of the common law that are consistent with the European law of human rights. Humans rights protect citizens against powerful bodies within the constitution. The important point is that the Human Rights Act does not limit parliamentary sovereignty. It gives the judges more powers of interpretation to make human rights rulings, it allows the judges to issue declarations of incompatibility which invite a minister to consider the fact that an Act of Parliament is in breach of human rights obligations. But it does not give the power to strike down acts of the UK parliament. It is redressing some of the checks and balances of the constitution.

    The following quotation taken from the case called Jackson and the Attorney General highlights how Lord Steyn understands parliamentary sovereignty:

    “We do not in the United Kingdom have an uncontrolled constitution as the Attorney General implausibly asserts. In the European context the second Factortame decision made that clear: [1991] 1 AC 603. The settlement contained in the Scotland Act 1998 also point to a divided sovereignty. Moreover, the European Convention on Human Rights as incorporated into our law by the Human Rights Act, 1998, created a new legal order. One must not assimilate the ECHR with multilateral treaties of the traditional type. Instead it is a legal order in which the United Kingdom assumes obligations to protect fundamental rights, not in relation to other states, but towards all individuals within its jurisdiction. The classic account given by Dicey of the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament, pure and absolute as it was, can now be seen to be out of place in the modern United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the supremacy of Parliament is still the general principle of our constitution. It is a construct of the common law. The judges created this principle. If that is so, it is not unthinkable that circumstances could arise where the courts may have to qualify a principle established on a different hypothesis of constitutionalism. In exceptional circumstances involving an attempt to abolish judicial review or the ordinary role of the courts, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords or a new Supreme Court may have to consider whether this is a constitutional fundamental which even a sovereign Parliament acting at the behest of a complaisant House of Commons cannot abolish.”
    (R (Jackson) v Attorney General [2005] UKHL 56)

    The Human Rights Act requires a constructive dialogue between national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg court has the authority to pronounce on the convention in the correct interpretation of its principles. However, in its decisions on particular cases, the Strasbourg court allows a national court to develop and apply their own understanding of the law to the facts of the case. This means that a national court must decide precisely on how the convention applies, and how the principles elaborated in Strasbourg should be applied in the special context of national legislation. If the national courts have to apply convention jurisprudence or the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, then they must do so in the prevalent terms of the national legal system. Thus, as far as the UK is concerned, the ordinary rules of precedent should apply.
    (Leeds City Council v Price [2006] UKHL 10)
    (Kay v Lambeth London Borough Council [2006] 2 AC 465)

  5. The Editor (Post author)

    The Doctrine of Precedent

    What characterises civil law is a binding code. Precedents in civil law tend to be illustrative and not binding on that code, because the code is binding. In common law, precedents are themselves binding, because there is no code.

    So there are two key features of the doctrine of precedent. Firstly, the precedent of binding. If a case that judges are trying to decide is considered sufficiently alike in law to an earlier ruling in a precedent case, then the instant case is bound by the ruling in the precedent case.

    The second feature is the hierarchy of courts. The rule of thumb is that the courts superior in the hierarchy bind the courts inferior to them in the hierarchy. In practice, precedents are determined by the Courts of Appeals, civil and criminal, and the House of Lords, or the Supreme Court.

    “At present the English doctrine of precedent is to some extent in a state of flux, but there appear to be three constant features. These are the respect ratio paid to a single decision of a superior court, the fact that a decision of such a court is a persuasive precedent even so far as courts above that from which it emanates are concerned, and the fact that a single decision is always binding precedent as regards courts below that form which it emanated.”
    (Cross, R. and Harris, J.W. (1991) Precedent in English Law, New York, Oxford University Press)

    On the one hand, the extent to which a superior court can depart from its own previous rulings – in exceptional circumstances – relates to the development of the flexibility of the common law. On the other hand, in a case called London Tramways and London City Council from 1898 Earl of Halsbury is arguing about a particular vision of how the House of Lords should work:

    “My Lords, it is totally impossible, as it appears to me, to disregard the whole current of authority upon this subject, and to suppose that what some people call an ‘extraordinary case,’ an ‘unusual case,’ a case somewhat different from the common, in the opinion of each litigant in turn, is sufficient to justify the rehearing and rearguing before the final Court of Appeal of a question which has been already decided. Of course I do not deny that cases of individual hardship may arise, and there may be a current of opinion in the profession that such and such a judgment was erroneous; but what is that occasional interference with what is perhaps abstract justice as compared with the inconvenience – the disastrous inconvenience – of having each question subject to being reargued and the dealings of mankind rendered doubtful by reason of different decisions, so that in truth and in fact there would be no real final Court of Appeal? My Lords, ‘interest rei publicæ’ that there should be ‘finis litium’ at some time, and there could be no ‘finis litium’ if it were possible to suggest in each case that it might be reargued, because it is “not an ordinary case,” whatever that may mean. Under these circumstances I am of opinion that we ought not to allow this question to be reargued.”
    (London Street Tramways Co Ltd v London County Council [1898] AC 375)

    In Lord Halsbury’s vision, the fact that a case might have been wrongly decided is not the most important consideration. The most important consideration is that there should be finality in law (finis litium). This has led to the view that House of Lords decisions regarding questions of law could not be overruled except by an Act of Parliament (Cross, 1991). The modern view, defined by the 1966 practice statement, states that too rigid adherence to precedent may lead to injustice in a particular case and also unduly restrict the proper development of the law:

    “Their Lordships regard the use of precedent as an indispensable foundation upon which to decide what is the law and its application to individual cases. It provides at least some degree of certainty upon which individuals can rely in the conduct of their affairs, as well as a basis for orderly development of legal rules. Their Lordships nevertheless recognise that too rigid adherence to precedent may lead to injustice in a particular case and also unduly restrict the proper development of the law. They propose, therefore, to modify their present practice and, while treating former decisions of this House as normally binding, to depart from a previous decision when it appears right to do so.”
    ([1966] 1 WLR 1234)

    In another case called Miliangos v George Frank (Textiles) Ltd, Lord Wilberforce recognises:

    “My Lords, in conclusion I would say that, difficult as this whole matter undoubtedly is, if once a clear conclusion is reached as to what the law ought now to be, declaration of it by this House is appropriate. The law on this topic is judge-made: it has been built up over the years from case to case. It is entirely within this House’s duty, in the course of administering justice, to give the law a new direction in a particular case where, on principle and in reason, it appears right to do so. I cannot accept the suggestion that because a rule is long established only legislation can change it – that may be so when the rule is so deeply entrenched that it has infected the whole legal system, or the choice of a new rule involves more far-reaching research than courts can carry out.”
    (Miliangos v George Frank (Textiles) Ltd [1976] AC 443)

    1. The law on this topic is judge made on a case by case basis over the years. There is not much legislation of direct relevance here. Therefore, it is within the the House of Lords’ duty of administering justice to give the law a new direction. Because on principle and in reason, it appears right to do so.
    2. Lord Wilberforce is against the idea that the courts should wait for parliament to change the law, because the law is not so deeply entrenched that it has “infected” the whole legal system. Then parliament could legislate – but this case, raised by Miliangos and George Frank, does not concern that kind of fact.

    3. The choice of a new rule involves more far-reaching research than the courts can carry out. Parliament has the primary law-making function. It can call on much greater resources in order to carry out this function than the courts can. If there are major policy changes, the courts are inappropriate for them to take place.
    4. The courts hear an argument and make legal principles, but in terms of changing general policy the courts’ law making function is a profoundly limited one. The judges accept this. So this would also be an argument that in certain cases the house of lords should not depart from a previous decision because it should be left to parliament. However, on the facts of this case, this is not this kind of situation. There are some forms of dispute and some forms of creation of rules and principles that are more fitting to the work of the judge than the policymaker or parliament, and the sterling damages rule falls into that category.

    In the case “Schorsch Meier”, Lord Denning brings forward arguments that the Court of Appeal should be allowed to depart from the House of Lords: The demands of justice in a particular case may justify departure from the rules. Seeing that the reason no longer exists, the judges are at reason to discard the rule itself. It would be wrong to abrogate substantial rights by reference to procedural concerns (Schorsch Meier GmbH. v. Hennin [1975] Q.B. 416).

    In a variation of this argument, the Court of Appeal was considering in “Davis and Johnson” the case of a victim of domestic violence. Ms. Davis had unsuccessfully asked the court for an order to compel her abusive partner to leave the flat that they had been sharing. To allow her appeal and to grant her the injunction, the Court of Appeal would have to depart from previous decisions where injunctions had not been awarded in similar situations. Lord Denning is trying to make an argument that the urgent demand of justice would justify the Court of Appeal departing from its previous rulings in order to provide this woman with an injunction. He is also considering that it may be also a case where an individual lacks the financial means to bring an appeal to the House of Lords. This problem is compounded by the fact that wealthy litigants can pay off an appeal and so perpetuate an erroneous decision in law. Moreover, in the present case, Lord Denning notes that the delay that an appeal would cause, would add to Miss Davis’ hardship: while her case was being decided she was resident and a battered womens’ refuge in appallingly overcrowded conditions.
    Lord Denning’s argument returns to the roots of the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal. When the court was set up in 1873, it was the final appellate court – as the jurisdiction of the House of Lords was not established until 1875. The court inherited jurisdiction of the Exchequer Chamber in the Court of Appeal and Chancery. As these courts were always considered to have the power to review their own decisions, it would be fair to assume that the modern Court of Appeal had inherited this jurisdiction. Lord Denning’s very sound argument also returns to another case (Bright v. Hutton [1852] 3 H.L.Cas. 341), which held that every court of justice possess an inherent power to correct an error into which it had fallen. However, Lord Diplock strongly disagrees:

    “So the rule as it had been laid down in the Bristol Aeroplane case had never been questioned thereafter until, following upon the announcement by Lord Gardiner L.C. in 1966 that the House of Lords would feel free in exceptional cases to depart from a previous decision of its own, Lord Denning M.R. conducted what may be described, I hope without offence, as a one- man crusade with the object of freeing the Court of Appeal from the shackles which the doctrine of stare decisis imposed upon its liberty of decision by the application of the rule laid down in the Bristol Aeroplane case to its own previous decisions ; or, for that matter, by any decisions of this House itself of which the Court of Appeal disapproved. See Broome v. Cassels & Co. Ltd. [1971] 2 Q.B. 354 ; Schorsch Meier G.m.b.H. v. Hennin [1975] Q.B. 416. In his judgment in the instant appeal, the Master of the Rolls refers to a number of cases after 1966 in which he suggests that the Court of Appeal has either refused to apply the rule as laid down in the Bristol Aeroplane case or has added so many other exceptions to the three that were stated by Lord Greene that it no longer operates as a curb on the power of the Court of Appeal to disregard any previous decision of its own which the majority of those members who happen to be selected to sit on a particular appeal think is wrong. Such, however, has not been the view of the other two members of the Court of Appeal who were sitting with the Master of the Rolls in any of those cases to which he refers. Where they felt able to disregard a previous decision of the Court of Appeal this was only because, in their opinion, it fell within the first or second exception stated in the Bristol Aeroplane case.”

    “When Miliangos v. Geo. Frank (Textiles) Ltd. [1975] Q.B. 487 was before the Court of Appeal the Master of the Rolls appears to have reluctantly recanted. That was a case in which Bristow J. had held that he was bound by a decision of this House in In re United Railways of Havana, Ltd. and Regla Warehouses, Ltd. [1961] A.C. 1007, despite the fact that the Court of Appeal had purported to overrule it in the Schorsch Meier case. On appeal from his decision the Master of the Rolls disposed of the case by holding that the Court of Appeal was bound by its own previous decision in the Schorsch Meire case. He added: —

    “I have myself often said that this court is not absolutely bound by its own decisions and may depart from them just as the House of Lords from theirs: but my colleagues have not gone so far. So that I am in duty bound to defer to their view.”

    “The reasons why his colleagues had not agreed to follow him are plain enough. In an appellate court of last resort a balance must be struck between the need on the one side for the legal certainty resulting from the binding effort of previous decisions, and, on the other side the avoidance of undue restriction on the proper development of the law.”
    (Davis v Johnson [1978] 2 WLR 553)

    And Lord Salmon states in the same case:

    “I am afraid that I disagree with Lord Denning M.R. when he says that the Court of Appeal is not absolutely bound by its own decisions and may depart from them just as your Lordships may depart from yours. As my noble and learned friend Lord Diplock has pointed out, the announcement made in 1966 by Lord Gardiner L.C. about the future attitudes of this House towards precedents ended with the words: “This announcement is not ‘intended to affect the use of precedents elsewhere than in this House’. I would also point out that that announcement was made with the unanimous approval of all the Law Lords: and that, by contrast, the overwhelming majority of the present Lords Justices have expressed the view that the principle of stare decisis still prevails and should continue to prevail in the Court of Appeal. I do not understand how, in these circumstances, it is even arguable that it does not.”
    (Davis v Johnson [1978] UKHL 1)

    In this case, the other Lords are saying that Lord Denning’s argument goes too far and creates too much of a disturbance within the hierarchy of the courts. It would have been correct for the court to appeal to wait for the House of Lords to change this rule. This points to Morris’ (1977) argument on ow much the development of the law depends on the accidents of litigation:

    “Had the three cases of Jugoslavenska, Schorsch Meier and Miliangos come before the courts in the reverse order, the decision in Miliangos might well have gone the other way, because the Treaty of Rome point was not available, and the Jugoslavenska case would have been still below the horizon. In that event, even Lord Denning might have hesitated before distinguishing Miliangos in Schorsch Meier because of the Treaty of Rome point.”
    [Morris, J. H. C. (1977) English Judgments in Foreign Currency: A Procedural Revolution. In: Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 41, Issue 2, pp. 44-53]

  6. The Editor

    On the Value of Written Words

    The House of Lords in R (Quintavalle) v Secretary of State for Health [2003] UKHL 692; [2003] 2 WLR 692 considered an issue of construction of an Act raised by Mrs Quintavalle. Lord Bingham of Cornhill gave the following summary of legislative history and purpose:

    “Such is the skill of parliamentary draftsmen that most statutory enactments are expressed in language which is clear and unambiguous and gives rise to no serious controversy. But these are not the provisions which reach the courts, or at any rate the appellate courts. Where parties expend substantial resources arguing about the effect of a statutory provision it is usually because the provision is, or is said to be, capable of bearing two or more different meanings, or to be of doubtful application to the particular case which has now arisen, perhaps because the statutory language is said to be inapt to apply to it, sometimes because the situation which has arisen is one which the draftsman could not have foreseen and for which he has accordingly made no express provision.”

    “The basic task of the court is to ascertain and give effect to the true meaning of what Parliament has said in the enactment to be construed. But that is not to say that attention should be confined and a literal interpretation given to the particular provisions which give rise to difficulty. Such an approach not only encourages immense prolixity in drafting, since the draftsman will feel obliged to provide expressly for every contingency which may possibly arise. It may also (under the banner of loyalty to the will of Parliament) lead to the frustration of that will, because undue concentration on the minutiae of the enactment may lead the court to neglect the purpose which Parliament intended to achieve when it enacted the statute. Every statute other than a pure consolidating statute is, after all, enacted to make some change, or address some problem, or remove some blemish, or effect some improvement in the national life. The court’s task, within the permissible bounds of interpretation, is to give effect to Parliament’s purpose. So the controversial provisions should be read in the context of the statute as a whole, and the statute as a whole should be read in the historical context of the situation which led to its enactment.”

    The issue that Lord Bingham raises is how a particular expression applies to a particular set of facts. For instance, in a case called Grant and Another v. Southwestern and County Properties Ltd. ([1975] 1 CH 185), Justice Walton had to decide whether a tape recording fell within the expression of the word document used in terms of the rule of the Supreme Court. Justice Walton decided that the furnishing of information ought to be treated as one of the main functions of a document, and he therefore concluded that a tape recording was indeed a document. Therefor, what Lord Bingham is asking to consider in the quote above are the various factors which can come into play in statutory interpretation, and the kind of instances that we find a court troubling itself over the meaning of a word in a statute.

    Another example is the word “can” in the Race Relations Act, which was interpreted in Mandla (Sewa Singh) v. Dowell Lee ([1983] 2 AC 548). Obviously a small word of the English language, the word could be interpreted in two ways. One way would have destroyed the entire system of prohibition on race discrimination that the act was trying to set up. This boils down to Plato’s (“Phaedrus”) general critique of writing:

    “And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.”

    In Plato’s context, how is it then possible that a book on the art of rhetoric can possibly “yield results that are clear or certain?” (275c). How could rhetoricians possibly believe that their writing “can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?” (275d). Socrates points out several related problems inherent to writing:

    1. Like painting, it has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (275d-e).
    2. It does not discern between appropriate and inappropriate audiences.
    3. It always needs the support of its writer (or “father”); for “alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support” (275e).
  7. The Editor (Post author)

    Literal and Purposive Interpretation

    In a U.S. case, Justice Douglas states that the literal sense remains the most reliable way of interpreting words, but a mature and developed jurisprudence also remembers that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish. A sympathetic and imaginative discovery of this purpose is the surest guide to their meaning. Purpose of interpretation is an important technique of a common law judge:

    “These considerations indicate to us that it would be a distortion to read § 9(e) as if Congress, in December, 1941, decided that the statute of limitations applicable to World War I claims should likewise be applicable to World War II claims. If we gave § 9(e) that broad interpretation, we would, in the third place, deprive § 9(a) of all meaning so far as World War II claims were concerned. That we hesitate to do, for the Act was not only designed to operate in the first World War; it was also to become effective at the time of any future war, unless repealed or superseded. Yet the remedy afforded by § 9(a) would be quite illusory and ineffective so far as it applies to World War II claims if § 9(e) were read literally without regard to its history. It was for this reason particularly that the court below refused “to make a fortress out of the dictionary” and to read § 9(e) strictly and literally. The policy, as well as the letter, of the law is a guide to decision. Resort to the policy of a law may be had to ameliorate its seeming harshness or to qualify its apparent absolutes, as Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U. S. 457 illustrates. The process of interpretation also misses its high function if a strict reading of a law results in the emasculation or deletion of a provision which a less literal reading would preserve.”
    [Markham v. Cabell, 326 U.S. 404 (1945)]

    Modern practice of judicial interpretation require to understand the contemporary background of the law of the United Kingdom. In the light of recent developments, such as the impact of European law, and the impact of European human rights law, U.K. judges have taken on a much more active role in interpretation and are much more willing to use purposive methods of interpretation. This points to the tools of statutory interpretation – the presumptions that inform judicial practice:

    1. The presumption against the alteration of the common law.
    2. That mens rea, the mental element, should be a part of a criminal offense.
    3. The presumption against the retrospective application of a statute.
    4. The presumption against the deprivation of an individuals liberty, property, or rights.
    5. The presumption that legislation does not apply toward the crown.
    6. The presumption against breach of international law.
    7. And the presumption that words take their meaning from their context.

    In the case Pepper v. Hart, the House of Lords took the opportunity to consider whether judges should be allowed to use Hansard as evidence when they are trying to interpret an act. They concluded that judges are allowed to make access to parliamentary material, and hence this would also mean lawyers could make use of this material in their submissions to court about the meaning of statutory provision. However, Lord Browne-Wilkinson narrowly defined the occasions when a court could make reference to Hansard:

    “My Lords, I have come to the conclusion that, as a matter of law, there are sound reasons for making a limited modification to the existing rule (subject to strict safeguards) unless there are constitutional or practical reasons which outweigh them. In my judgment, subject to the questions of the privileges of the House of Commons, reference to Parliamentary material should be permitted as an aid to the construction of legislation which is ambiguous or obscure or the literal meaning of which leads to an absurdity. Even in such cases references in court to Parliamentary material should only be permitted where such material clearly discloses the mischief aimed at or the legislative intention lying behind the ambiguous or obscure words. In the case of statements made in Parliament, as at present advised I cannot foresee that any statement other than the statement of the Minister or other promoter of the Bill is likely to meet these criteria.”

    “I accept Mr. Lester’s submissions, but my main reason for reaching this conclusion is based on principle. Statute law consists of the words that Parliament has enacted. It is for the courts to construe those words and it is the court’s duty in so doing to give effect to the intention of Parliament in using those words. It is an inescapable fact that, despite all the care taken in passing legislation, some statutory provisions when applied to the circumstances under consideration in any specific case are found to be ambiguous. One of the reasons for such ambiguity is that the members of the legislature in enacting the statutory provision may have been told what result those words are intended to achieve. Faced with a given set of words which are capable of conveying that meaning it is not surprising if the words are accepted as having that meaning. Parliament never intends to enact an ambiguity. Contrast with that the position of the courts. The courts are faced simply with a set of words which are in fact capable of bearing two meanings. The courts are ignorant of the underlying Parliamentary purpose. Unless something in other parts of the legislation discloses such purpose, the courts are forced to adopt one of the two possible meanings using highly technical rules of construction. In many, I suspect most, cases references to Parliamentary materials will not throw any light on the matter. But in a few cases it may emerge that the very question was considered by Parliament in passing the legislation. Why in such a case should the courts blind themselves to a clear indication of what Parliament intended in using those words? The court cannot attach a meaning to words which they cannot bear, but if the words are capable of bearing more than one meaning why should not Parliament’s true intention be enforced rather than thwarted?”
    [Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v. Hart [1992] UKHL 3]

  8. The Editor

    Change of Direction

    A change of direction in interpretation was introduced in another of Lord Denning’s judgment. The early European Union case Bulmer v. Bollinger is about intellectual property: Bulmer produces cider, Bollinger produces champagne:

    “Seeing these differences, what are the English Courts to do when they are faced with a problem of interpretation? They must follow the European pattern. No longer must they examine the words in meticulous detail. No longer must they argue about the precise grammatical sense. They must look to the purpose or intent. To quote the words of the European Court in the Da Costa case (1963) 2 C.M.L.R. at page 237, ‘they must deduce from the wording and the spirit of the Treaty the meaning of the Community rules.’ They must not confine themselves to the English text. They must consider, if need be, all the authentic texts, of which there are now eight, see Sociale Verzekeringsbank (1968) 7 C.M.L.R. 151. They must divine the spirit of the Treaty and gain inspiration from it. If they find a gap, they must fill it as best they can. They must do what the framers of the instrument would have done if they had thought about it. So we must do the same. Those are the principles, as I understand it, on which the European Court acts.”
    (HP Bulmer Ltd & Anor v. J. Bollinger SA & Ors [1974] EWCA Civ 14)

    This is a long way from literal interpretation which doesn’t involve any questions of the ultimate purpose of a legislation. Its focus is narrowly on the wording of the act itself. Lord Denning introduces a complete change of direction in how Statute is to be interpreted. The interpreter must divine the spirit of the Treaty, gain inspiration from it, and use this understanding to fill the gaps to resolve the ambiguities that are present within with the ambiguous rules.
    Lord Denning returns to this point in a later case called Macarthys v. Smith and adds more detail to how this method of interpretation interfaces with judicial interpretation of UK legislation:

    “It is important now to declare – and it must be made plain – that the provisions of Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome take priority over anything in our English statute on equal pay which is inconsistent with Article 119. That priority is given by our own law. It is given by the European Communities Act 1972 itself. Community law is now part of our law: and, whenever there is any inconsistency, Community law has priority. It is not supplanting English law. It is part of our law which overrides any other part which is inconsistent with it.”
    (Macarthys Ltd v Smith (No.2) [1980] EWCA Civ 7)

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