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Moved by Lord Beith
21: Clause 26, page 30, line 13, leave out paragraph (b)Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove the power of Ministers by delegated legislation to decide which courts and tribunals should have power to depart from judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union and by reference to what test.
My Lords, I am moving Amendment 21 on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who apologises that he is in court. I look forward to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who has chaired our Constitution Committee’s proceedings on this issue. As the committee has pointed out, the clause that we are seeking to amend raises substantial constitutional concerns. I note that two former Lord Chief Justices are in the Chamber as well, so I look forward to an interesting debate.
After the end of the implementation period, the United Kingdom courts will still have to interpret a large body of retained European law. This necessarily will involve reference to the case law created by the Court of Justice of the European Union. This case law will continue to apply in our courts alongside any relevant domestic case law. However, in Section 6(5) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—as noble Lords will remember all too well—we have already legislated to give the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland the power to depart from retained EU case law, having applied the same test as they would have applied if they were departing from their own case law. The Government now want to give themselves the power by regulations to extend that ability to depart from established case law to other unspecified courts—which could under the terms of the Bill be any court in the land—to specify the extent to which, or the circumstances in which, the court is not to be bound by EU case law, and to substitute the Government’s view of what test should be applied by the court after consultation for the Supreme Court’s existing and well-established test.
A lot of questions are prompted by this. Why do the Government want to do these things at all? If there is a good reason, why is provision not set out in the Bill as the previous scope and previous test were clearly set out in the 2018 Act? What courts do the Government intend to extend the power to? On Monday, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said that
“there is no intention to extend the divergence from retained EU case law to every court and tribunal in the United Kingdom … We recognise the uncertainty that would be a consequence of such a move”.—[
So what courts are intended: the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Court of Session, the sheriff court, the county court? How much uncertainty are Ministers willing to create and contemplate? What alternative test do they have in mind? The Minister needs to give us at least an illustration of what alternative test might be mandated on the courts through the proposed regulations.
I do not argue that ECJ case law should be kept alive longer than is necessary in our system, but the best way forward is surely for Parliament to update retained European law over time as domestic law and put in primary legislation any changes in the way courts deal with retained European law in the meantime. Leaving the clause in the Bill has serious constitutional and practical consequences. It allows the Executive to create and potentially circumscribe the discretion of the court, which, if it is going to be done, should be achieved by primary legislation. It can give Ministers a direct role through the making of the regulations in instructing courts to disregard the effects of CJEU case law. The extension of the disregard to more courts could lead to more potentially confusing and conflicting decisions on the effect of CJEU case law, giving rise to appeals which would have been unnecessary if the matter had been considered by the Supreme Court in the first place.
The existence of more courts which can depart from CJEU case law may encourage additional legislation. Lower courts are not bound by one another’s determinations, so differing conclusions could be reached on human rights protections arising from EU case law, a point stressed in representations I have received in support of the amendment from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The provisions in Clause 26 seem to have few friends. They replace a simple and straightforward process giving the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justiciary sole responsibility for departing from CJEU case law on the basis of a well-understood and well-established test.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord can give us a much clearer indication of what the Government are seeking to achieve and why they are doing it by regulation rather than including it in the Bill. I hope that we will hear a very full response from him. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a litigator over 30 years of European law issues for whom these paragraphs and the legal uncertainty they unleash bring the prospect of endless work and riches as yet undreamed of. None the less, I put my name to the amendments, which of course will do nothing to obstruct or delay the Brexit that will occur on
At Second Reading, I described another clause of the Bill as “Henry VIII on steroids”, but even that description is hardly strong enough for new subsection (5A)(b). That would allow the Minister, by regulations, to decide the extent to which, and the circumstances in which, our courts are to consider themselves bound by the law of the land, whether in the form of retained EU case law or retained domestic case law that relates to it. If Parliament is asked to change retained EU law, we will debate it and no doubt find a way to do it. Taking back control of our laws is one of the principal points of Brexit and, for my part, I hope to play a constructive role in that process. But to stand by and see these law-changing powers given to Ministers is quite another matter.
European law, no less than our own, is contained to a significant extent in the judgments and interpretations of the courts—what in the domestic context we refer to as principles of common law. If Ministers were free to remove the binding force of principles that they did not like, they could selectively neuter the protections given by law to workers, consumers, disadvantaged groups and the environment. Such a power in the Executive to interfere with the law declared by the courts, including the courts of this country, has no precedent that I know of. It would also cause uncertainty with effect from now, because no one can predict which parts of retained EU law will be changed over the year ahead or how the structure of what remains will react when a load-bearing element is removed.
Alarming in a different way is new subsection (5A)(c), on which the noble Lord, Lord Beith, began his remarks. Courts could be licensed under this provision to make their own departures from retained EU case law on conditions that Ministers could specify. As Sir Bob Neill explained in the Commons, that is a recipe for uncertainty, confusion and opportunistic litigation on a grand scale.
The Minister will, I anticipate, encourage us not to worry, because senior judges must be consulted. But consultation means only that. The Government have the whip hand. The complex ramifications will not be exposed by argument as they would be in court and, if deference to the judges’ views could ever have been assumed, it certainly could not be now. I suggest that there would be situations in which the judges will not even feel able to offer an opinion.
Imagine the scene. The Minister summons the judges and informs them of his proposal to instruct them that in accordance with the clear will of the people—or at any rate of the Government—they are no longer to be bound by the settled interpretation of the precautionary principle in environmental cases or the principle of indirect discrimination in employment law. The judges would no doubt come back with such comments as might occur to them on the timing, the procedural implications and so on. But since such instructions would be lawfully issued, if this clause passes into the Bill, and would implement clear government policy, these serving judges could not pass substantive comment without being dragged into the policy sphere, which, contrary to the views of some, they are extremely anxious to avoid.
Secondly, the Minister will point out, quite correctly, that the power in question will sunset when the transition period ends. However, it is the power to make regulations that will sunset, not the application of those regulations after the transition period. So that reassurance is illusory.
Thirdly, perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, who is as shrewd as he is principled, will tacitly accept the overbreadth of these provisions but hint at their restrained future use. In that case, I would invite him to come back with a version consistent with those restraints. We are reasonable people and if his only concern is a possible bottleneck in the Supreme Court other solutions could be devised and have indeed been suggested to him.
To leave this extraordinary clause unamended would be, I suggest, a dereliction of duty. I hope that amendment will come from the Government. However, when the time comes and in the last resort, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said on Monday,
“we should not be intimidated from fulfilling our constitutional role of scrutiny and amendment”.—[
That is particularly so, I would add, on an issue that was not put to vote in the Commons, that has been the subject of strong comment from the Constitution Committee, that in no way jeopardises Brexit but that threatens the independence and good order of the courts.
My Lords, members of the Constitution Committee are very concerned about this suggestion in the legislation. The case was outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, who went into some detail, so I do not wish to repeat all that. I simply want to ask the Minister, first, whether it is the Government’s intention to use this new subsection (5A)(b), and, secondly, if they will not use it, why it is in the Bill. If they intend to use this provision, can the Minister please give us some examples of where that might be?
My Lords, I also serve on the Constitution Committee and share the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Taylor and the noble Lord, Lord Beith. The relationship between the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature is a matter of some current controversy. The Executive have been stunned by the judgment made in the Supreme Court in the autumn, and I suspect that in part we are seeing a somewhat petulant response to that circumstance.
At all events, what is proposed in this legislation is a gross intrusion by the Executive into the proper realm of the judiciary. The Executive complain that the judiciary has extended itself excessively into its role; we are now seeing a retaliation on a major scale. Whatever practical motivation otherwise that may have caused the Government to write new subsection (5A)(b) into this clause, it is a foolish initiative on the part of the Government.
This is territory in which the Government ought to walk delicately, like Agag. It sets an appalling precedent, and it intrudes into the proper role of Parliament, because it is not appropriate. Even if it were appropriate for Ministers to interfere at all in this realm of judicial discretion, it is not appropriate for Ministers to do it by regulation. Such decisions ought to be made by Parliament in primary law, ensuring that the sort of very important principles which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, has suggested might be interfered with by Ministers under the terms of this legislation cannot be dealt with in this kind of way.
My Lords, I am puzzled by some of the issues that have been raised by this amendment. First, only a year or two ago, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, then president, called for Parliament to tell our judges clearly how rulings of the CJEU are to be dealt with after Brexit. Apparently our noble and learned friend did not see any difficulty about that.
Secondly, to tell courts that they are not bound by something does not mean that they will not follow it. If they are not bound, they may well still choose to follow it if they think it is good law. There are indeed many instances where the Court of Justice of the European Union has not produced good law: for example, over the secret nature of MEPs' expenses, on genetically modified crops and on diplomatic immunity. This is not surprising, because it is a court very unlike our own type of court. Its judges are nominated by sending countries for six years—they have only a six-year tenure. They have enormous salaries and expenses, and I am sure that they are reluctant to lose them after six years, and anxious to be renominated.
There are of course no dissenting judgments. Many of the so-called judges are not judges at all. They have been professors—obviously, I have great admiration for professors—and civil servants, with of course the exception of the British judge. So I am a little sceptical about this court. I think people sometimes confuse it with the European Court of Human Rights. We hear much talk that, if we depart from the rulings of the CJEU, our human rights will be affected. That is not the issue today.
I ask those who put forward this amendment what they mean, or envisage, by binding and not following, and why they think it would be better for citizens to have to go all the way to to the Supreme Court, with all the delay and expense—and lots of nice jobs for lawyers—that will be involved if you can only get a diversion from EU law by going all the way to the Supreme Court.
My Lords, although I am one of the few legal Cross-Benchers who has not been Lord Chief Justice, I too want to say a few words in support of these amendments.
I wonder whether my noble friend Lady Deech has recognised the precise area that we are concerned with here, which is retained EU law: that is, decisions of the European Court of Justice pre the end of the transition period, not decisions to come thereafter which can merely be taken account of and do not bind. So we are concerned with the actual decisions taken before we finally part ways.
Under our system, it is normally for Parliament, of course—and to a very limited extent for Ministers, by secondary legislation—to legislate: to declare what the law is, almost invariably for the future. Only rarely do we give law retrospective effect. But in 1966, as I am sure we all know, the practice statement in the House of Lords said for the first time that we could depart from what has otherwise been the sacrosanct principle of stare decisis—of precedent in the interests of certainty and finality—subject to a rigorous test. It is a rarely used power, now transferred to the Supreme Court and indeed, by a decision that I wrote in 2007, to the Privy Council. In certain limited circumstances, the courts can depart from their previous decisions.
The sort of consideration or test is whether the earlier ruling is now judged to have been plainly wrong, and how long it has stood. If it is recent, that is one thing, but if it has stood for a long time there may be many who have acted in reliance on it. Let us not forget that when the court exercises this power it does so by declaring what the position is and always has been. It therefore applies retrospectively and leads to cases where those affected by it, although they may run into time difficulties, may need leave to appeal, or to bring proceedings, out of time. They may then say, “That is now established as the law and therefore we would like to invoke it.”
In the ordinary way, we only use this power where the individual case leads to manifest injustice or is contrary to public policy, or where the established line of authority unduly restricts the development of the law. In a very interesting and powerful piece in the Spectator last week, one of the excellent contributors to the Policy Exchange, Professor Richard Ekins, quarrels even with Section 6(4) and (5) of the 2018 Act, which already provide in effect for the Supreme Court, and in certain circumstances the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland, to have the same powers to reverse EU-retained case law; in other words, not to follow what they would otherwise need to follow, the already decided ECJ decisions, in the same way as they can not follow existing domestic law.
Professor Ekins suggests that that
“would introduce unnecessary legal doubt and improperly empower the Court to make new law.”
I see that point, of course, although I would not deprive the Supreme Court of this power. However, it strongly reinforces what he already said in the article in support in effect of Amendment 21: that it would be absurd for some lesser body as yet unknown, and I rather suspect not quite thought out, to decide who should, at a lower level, be authorised by ministerial regulation to depart from retained EU case law. That would indeed be a recipe for chaos, confusion and uncertainty.
As to the other main point, Professor Ekins wants all the power to change EU case law to be either the power of the Minister to promote by way of primary legislation—which of us would quarrel with that; it is plainly the correct approach?—or for the Minister by secondary legislation. That is where the real problem lies. If the proposed change of legal direction from earlier rulings of the ECJ involves obvious fresh policy choices, such as the sort of things instanced by my noble friend Lord Anderson, it will affect some already established important legal principle and is plainly an issue for Parliament by primary legislation. Secondary legislation could be appropriate here only if it is demonstrably necessary either to work cogently with some clearly established new post-Brexit situation or something of that character.
That said, I share Professor Ekins’s objection to involving individual judicial officeholders, however senior and distinguished, in the process of ministerial law-making. This again chimes with what my noble friend Lord Anderson said. I support both the amendments. Let the Supreme Court, as under the 2018 Act, have this rare power that will be seldom exercised, but mostly it should be for primary legislation to depart from well-established legal principles.
My Lords, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, I too would welcome some clarity in this field, but I do not think that clarity can be provided by Ministers creating regulations behind the scenes and then serving them up to the House of Commons, which has not rejected any ministerial regulation since 1979, or this House, which has rejected them on minimal occasions, and by doing so in 2015 apparently caused a constitutional crisis. The issue is very simple. Of course there should be clarity and of course it should be provided by Parliament. We will now be considering what is domestic law. We call it EU case law, but the whole point of the process that we are going through is that it will become British EU-retained law. It will be British law and no longer EU law. It is that which will be interfered with.
I could spend some time going through the doctrines of precedents. They are very clear and simple. I remind the House that they have provided a way of achieving legal certainty. You can conduct your affairs with a degree of legal certainty. You can conduct your business, conduct your tax affairs and deal with foreigners outside this country. They tend to want to come to this country because the law is certain and clear. Yet simultaneously, and it is one of the great glories of our system, we have common law that goes back to 1189 that has enabled the law to develop, flourish and adapt as and when it became appropriate and necessary to do so. The greatest tribute to the common law is that it carries the day in all English-speaking countries. It is still used in India and Australia—adapted, of course, because that is one of its fundamental strengths, to conditions there.
I gave a lecture and talked to people who have suffered the horrendous problems of Bhopal, which not many of us will forget. There is a perfectly good legal principle—British, as it happens—called Rylands v Fletcher, which decided in Victorian times to create a new system. If you bring dangerous things on to your land, it is your job to keep them in, and if they get out, you are responsible. That was the common law working with absolute certainty to produce a new way of looking at the responsibilities of the landowner. So between them, the principles of legal certainty and the use of the common law enabled our law to develop.
“there is no intention on the part of the Government to extend the power to every court and tribunal in the land.”—[
But that is the power that is being given by this legislation as it stands to a Minister. If that is not the Government’s intention, what on earth is the point of giving the power in the legislation to the Minister?
Where do we go? This permits the Minister to make regulations that would create jurisdiction in any court at any level to disapply retained EU case law, which is our law. Just think of the district judge sitting in, for example, Pontypool County Court, bound by all the decisions of all the courts above him or her by our own native law—Occupiers’ Liability Act, Unfair Contract Terms Act and even the Finance Act—who is then told, “Here is the EU case law. You are not bound by anyone’s decisions on that, so take a running jump at it.”
That in truth is what the poor judge will have to do. Think of his poor colleague in Penrith County Court, faced with a large organisation taking advantage of this new system by going to a small county court without the experience to respond to: “This bit of EU case law really troubles us. Your honour is not bound by it, so here are the reasons you should find for us.” To be fair, it could happen the other way around with a litigant who knows perfectly well that under case law he has no case, going to the same judge and saying, against a large business organisation, “They cannot rely on the case law any more, because you are not bound by it.” The same could happen in a tax tribunal or a VAT tribunal. All of this is quite unnecessary because, as the Minister has said, that is not the Government’s intention.
I would love to have a go at Henry VIII, whether he is filled with fat or with whatever drug to describe this condition today, but I am going to resist the temptation to do so, because I want the Government to realise that this is nothing more than a reasonable argument that needs to be addressed. All that is needed, without causing any delay to Brexit or creating a problem on
As an example, I did a bit of drafting last night so that they could say, “The Supreme Court and/or the Court of Appeal in England and Wales and the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland are not bound by retained EU case law”. Or the Government could say that those courts may depart from any retained EU case law if and when. It is not difficult, and I will offer myself to the Minister to sit down and talk it over with him if that would help. If Ministers are listening, perhaps that offer will be taken up. However, we have to address the principle, because the slightest incursion into judicial processes must be for Parliament, not for Ministers.
Perhaps I may make some brief observations, in part in support of the underlying purpose of what the Government have said they want to do, but in total support of this amendment. As I understand the position, the Government want courts other than the Supreme Court or the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland to have power not to follow decisions of the CJEU on retained law. That is a purpose I support. In the course of the debate on the withdrawal Bill, in particular the Report stage in April 2018, I asked the Government to think again in relation to allowing the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, the Inner House in Scotland and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland to have this power.
I did so for two reasons. First, it would create a considerable bottleneck. Indeed, it could be said that the Supreme Court might be so busy that it would not have time to do anything else—a prospect which this Government might welcome. But that is not the point. The point is that we must look realistically at this issue, and there is much to be said for allowing the Courts of Appeal or the Inner House to be able to have the same power as the Supreme Court.
There is another reason. As I think experience has shown, certainly the experience of some judges who sit in the Supreme Court, it is extremely helpful to have a judgment of the lower court in those proceedings where issues that go straight to the Supreme Court sometimes turn out not to be quite so satisfactory. However, this is not a new point because it is one that I made some 20 months ago, and it really does seem to me that if the Government are proposing to go anywhere other than the Courts of Appeal or the Inner House, it will cause chaos. But if they intend to go only to the Courts of Appeal, this can be written into the Bill—it is very simple—and should be done now. I very much hope that that would be the way forward.
The second issue goes to the test. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, and I both pointed out in the debates on the withdrawal Act that using the powers under the practice statement to look at decisions of the CJEU and to decide whether they should be followed was not the right way forward. First, the test was never devised in those circumstances. Secondly, and much more worryingly, it would give the Supreme Court, or any other court that could depart, a huge power without any clear guidance, so there would always be the risk that the court could be put in the position of being perceived to be entering into the political field in making the decision to reverse or not to reverse. Therefore, there is substantial merit in putting a new test, so I support both of the underlying purposes. However, to allow a Minister to specify a test which the judges have to apply would be a power that any populist Government would love to have, but as far as I am aware, no populist Government, however powerful, have ever asked for this before. It runs entirely contrary to the rule of law and to the fundamental principle of the separation of powers.
It seems to me, therefore, that one of the points that arises is which of the courts can and should be dealt with now, and if there is to be a modification of the test, that needs to be debated. This may not be the right time to do so because, as was pointed out in the earlier debates, the way in which retained EU case law is approached must depend on whether the decision is made for close alignment with the EU and therefore the need to continue the case law, or whether a different way will be put forward. So it is difficult to set out the test now, but it should be done, and done only by Parliament. We cannot give Ministers the power to tell judges how to decide cases.
I do not particularly wish to speak first, but in view of the noble and learned Lord’s invitation, I will make my brief contribution. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, I have a fair amount of experience in this area of European law and the modification of existing judgments—I sat in the House of Lords when it set aside a previous judgment. It is extremely important that we consider the principle that has to lie behind this. The present situation is that EU retained law has been made part of the law of the United Kingdom unless and until it is modified by Parliament in due course. When passing the previous withdrawal Act, we placed a number of restrictions on that power for Ministers in various areas relating to human rights and so on.
From what I read in the newspapers as these things developed, my impression was that the Government were anxious that the power to modify or depart from EU judgments would be better given to a wider set of courts than the Supreme Court, and the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland on criminal matters, as had been done in the withdrawal Act. I can see that it may be part of overall policy that it should be rather wider than the present law would permit. However, it is important that whatever method is used, it is one that will prevail across the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, to give the power to do this to, for example, the Inner House of the Court of Session, would have the effect that it would apply in Scotland but not in England and Wales directly, nor in Northern Ireland. There would be a degree of difficulty in that. That is why, in my view, this power should be in the Supreme Court. As we all know, when the Supreme Court gives a judgment, it is a judgment for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is important to emphasise that the name of the court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
If it is desired to give the power to a wider section of the courts, the way to do so is to specify which courts they are. The example given by my noble and learned friend is one possibility, but it is for the Government to decide how wide they wish to be. However, it is important that the courts should not have the power to ultimately decide; it should be required to refer the matter to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can modify the burden that that would involve by a lead process, leaving it free to dismiss a case where it was thought there was nothing in it. One possible line is for the lower court to give a judgment which might ultimately help the Supreme Court, but I do not know whether that would always be necessary. The important thing is that any court that has this power would have it only as a way of referring the matter to the Supreme Court.
I was thinking of putting forward an amendment to this effect, but I thought it probably better to leave it until we have had a chance to discuss it. I have reached the conclusion that, as a practical matter, if we in this House can persuade the Government to change, it is likely to be effective; whereas if we do not persuade the Government to change, it may not be effective, with results that we may not altogether approve of. My main effort in this is to try to persuade the Government that a system along the lines I have proposed would be perfectly acceptable and workable, and would embrace all the courts that it needs to embrace.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for preceding me because he is in a unique position to give advice to the House on this issue. I only intervene to add to what has already been said because I want to stress the importance of the issue. There is an old saying that hard cases can make bad law. This may be a hard situation for the Government but they are in danger of making very bad law indeed. Why they are in danger and why they would be wise to think very carefully again before they ask for this to be implemented is apparent from the careful steps that were taken back in 2005 when I was still one of the chief justices—to whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred—who are present before your Lordships.
At that time, changes were being made which went to the root of the constitution, and the courts were concerned that they could be severely damaging to our unwritten constitution. As a consequence, the then Lord Chancellor and I—then Lord Chief Justice—came together to make a concordat to try to deal with those difficulties. It was recognised that one of the underlying principles of our common law and constitution was the separation of powers, and what was being done in 2005—which affected the position of the Lord Chancellor in relation to the courts—was trespassing on the principles that had existed hitherto. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was well aware of these principles when he was Lord Chancellor and a member of the Government. The role that the Lord Chancellor played at that time was to ensure that the important balance—which explained how we managed to continue without a written constitution—succeeded, which it did remarkably well.
As I see the situation, what my noble and learned friends and my noble friend Lord Anderson have been saying to your Lordships is that this proposes a change in our law that would undermine the proper observation of the rule of law in a most critical way. I suggest that for this House to allow that to happen without protesting in the clearest way would be very undesirable indeed. I feel confident that if the Government look at this matter again and bear in mind the speeches made to this House today, they will see how it can be dealt with. However important Brexit is, it must not be allowed to create a precedent that could be followed hereafter, as has been suggested, which would damage our situation.
I hope we will always be able to continue in this country without a written constitution. However, if we let what is proposed go through with saying it should be amended, we will create a situation where that will not be possible. We should pause before doing so.
My Lords, I have no legal training, unlike many of the eminent lawyers who have spoken this morning. I have occasionally found myself in court, but mainly as a litigant against the Met Police and the Government, although occasionally as a defendant, but I was obviously always innocent.
As I have no legal training, perhaps I can be seen as somebody who represents some of the majority of the people in the UK who have no legal training and who perhaps will not understand what is happening here today, because quite honestly it is an aberration and something that we all have to resist. I very much hope that this Government can see that they have a fight on their hands, because if this clause gives any insight into government thinking it is quite chilling and quite upsetting, as it is contrary to everything that Britain stands for.
Our overconfident Government want to completely redraw the checks and balances in our constitution so that Ministers can opt out of legal precedent at will. Ministers are seeking power to disapply EU case law as though their existing Henry VIII powers are not enough. No good justification has been given, and no sensible restrictions have been put in place so that these powers are used only when strictly necessary. This clause will create a wild west of legal uncertainty, where no one can really be sure what the words “contained in retained EU law” actually mean, until even the most basic issues are litigated on. It is a scorched earth policy and totally inappropriate for our legal system.
Of course, these absurd powers will also be particularly harmful for the environment and our natural world, since so much of our environmental legislation comes from the European Union. The UK Government have a terrible track record of getting into trouble with the European courts for things like our air pollution epidemic and the amount of raw sewage in our rivers. It is almost no wonder that the Government would like this magic wand to take away EU case law. But what is convenient for our Government would be disastrous for our environment, which is why my noble friend, who cannot be here in the Chamber at the moment, and I so strongly support these amendments. I hope that the many clear, sensible and legal arguments put forward by so many noble and learned Lords today will encourage the Government to rethink this.
My Lords, I too am not a lawyer, and I will not even attempt to add to the legal arguments, which have been so well set out by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf, Lord Judge, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, as well as by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and others, as to why any decision on the interpretation of retained EU law should be taken at Supreme Court level, as envisaged in the 2018 Act, and why ministerial regulations are simply not appropriate in this matter.
I will say three things. One is that it is a really bad way to make law suddenly, with such a clause, with no consultation either with the judiciary—if this was the consultation that has happened today, I think we can take it as, “No thanks”—or, indeed, with the devolved nations, which we discussed earlier. I will answer the question put by my noble friend Lady Taylor about what the Government have in mind. At a briefing, it was very clear that they already had something in mind, a sunset clause at the end of this year, and my answer is simply that there is something that is not oven-ready at the moment that is waiting to come in. There is a closed envelope somewhere, and it is appropriate that we should be told what exactly is in it, so perhaps we could hear about that later.
Secondly, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said, Clause 26 could result in the divergence of approach within and between the jurisdictions of the UK on matters where a common approach is essential: things that are fundamental to our UK-wide single market. On Monday, the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, recalled that for 40 years EU legislation
“ensured that there was a large amount of similarity and coherence in how these laws were interpreted in the various parts of the United Kingdom. The question that arises now is: will we require to maintain that level of coherence in order to operate as a single national economy? This will be particularly true for food, farming, fishing … in Scotland and … the devolved Administrations.”—[
Harking back to the earlier discussion about the all-United Kingdom economy, this seems a crucial issue. Allowing lower, non-UK-wide courts to interpret the regulations that the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned, environmental matters, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, or VAT or duties, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, mentioned, could open a wide door to divergence on issues within our own single market.
Thirdly, there is obviously a fear that this provision risks undermining workers’ rights, given that the political declaration makes no mention of the rights previously protected by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and its key principles which have found their way into EU case law. Employees in the UK benefit from the ECJ’s sometimes more generous interpretation of employment rights, such as the right to paid holidays, the requirement for employers to keep records of hours worked to comply with the working time directive, and the ruling as to whether overtime is factored into holiday pay. These have been essential and are now part of UK law—of course via case law. Without a guarantee to uphold the body of case law on workers’ rights, the Prime Minister’s commitment to protect our employee rights after Brexit will sound more hollow than any chimes of Big Ben, whether on
Clause 26, which has been dropped in with no rationale, prior debate, consultation or Green Paper, diminishes the Bill while introducing uncertainty into our laws. It has no place here. We will seek to remove it, although, as other noble Lords have said and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, urged, it would be much better if the Government were to do this.
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, for moving the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I will seek to offer some explanation and reassurance with regard to the clause in question.
As has been noted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, we are concerned here with retained EU law. For clarity, Clause 26 draws a distinction between retained EU law and relevant separation agreement law, which is applicable as a consequence of the withdrawal agreement and is untouched by any of these proposals, given our international law obligations. Retained EU law will form part of the law of the United Kingdom. It is then a question of how we approach the interpretation and application of that law, which, in turn, takes us to the question of precedent and the binding force—at present—of decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union in this context.
Provision has already been made, pursuant to Section 6(5) of the 2018 Act, to confer upon the United Kingdom Supreme Court the power to depart from previous decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The idea that one can depart from such a body of case law is hardly novel. It has been a feature of common law since at least the 1960s, when the judicial committee of the House of Lords expressed its intention to depart from previous case law as and when it felt it was necessary to do so. Therefore, we are not, as it were, moving into novel territory in this context.
The intention behind this clause is to give a power to make regulations to ensure that the United Kingdom courts are not inappropriately bound by retained EU case law as part of the body of United Kingdom law after we have left the European Union. It goes no further than that. These courts may choose to follow that case law, but the point is to ensure that they are not bound to do so in circumstances where they form a view that it would be inappropriate to the development of UK law for them to do so.
The Government are sensible in the manner in which they will seek to exercise the regulatory power. The Bill requires that Ministers must consult the senior judiciary across the whole of the United Kingdom before making any regulations, and indeed may consult other appropriate persons, and any regulations will be laid before Parliament under the affirmative procedure. Those safeguards are clearly in place.
We want to ensure that United Kingdom law after we leave is consistent and clear. The power will be employed in a way that is consistent with our own constitutional norms and traditions: judicial independence, the doctrine of precedent and the separation of powers. Any regulations will respect these long-established principles but will also allow that retained EU case law is not the sole preserve of the court of final appeal, be it the United Kingdom Supreme Court or, in the context of criminal matters, the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland.
The Minister says that this will be done under the affirmative procedure. Should that come here, we have always had the right to negate such an order. However, should this House do that, given the advice it has had, it would not be challenged as a constitutional outrage but would be a proper use of this House’s power.
It would always be a proper use of this House’s power, albeit there are constitutional norms that apply. However, it is not just this House; the House of Commons would also have the opportunity to address the terms of any regulations. I have no doubt that, having regard to our constitutional norms, this House would have regard to the determination of the House of Commons on that point, but would not be absolutely bound by it. I fully accept that.
The Minister has just said that this would improve consistency. How can it improve consistency in the interpretation of law if you potentially have a proliferation of lower courts that can all reach different judgments? The import of the objections made in the last hour is precisely that having just the Supreme Court, and the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland, is much more a recipe for consistency than what the Government are planning.
That is one view as to how we might achieve consistency. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, will have noted from the contributions made by a number of noble Lords and noble and learned Lords—in particular the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern—there are diverse views as to how this could be achieved.
For example, one view is that the power should rest only with the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justiciary but that there should be a reference process. Another view is that the power should be conferred upon the Court of Appeal, a lower court, or the Inner House in Scotland, because that would assist the Supreme Court as and when it came to consider the matter, and speed up the whole process of determining the issue. There are diverse views, as is reflected in the report of the Constitution Committee, as to how this could best be achieved. That is a very compelling reason for taking this regulatory-making power in order that, with the appropriate consultation, we can come to a suitable consensus as to how this is best done in the future. We can then allow for flexibility.
I stress that if, for example, we left the power purely in the hands of the United Kingdom Supreme Court, that might assist in consistency of decision-making—I will come back to the question of precedent in a moment—but it would put immense pressure on the Supreme Court itself and potentially create significant delays for litigants. Given that, it would not be a recipe for certainty; rather, it would be a recipe for uncertainty.
As I say, there are diverse views on how we can best achieve the result that we are all seeking. That is why it is appropriate that we should pause, take the matter forward by way of regulation, consult with the appropriate parties and then determine the best means of doing this. That will have to be resolved before the end of the implementation period.
At the end of the day, the power can be used only to determine which courts can depart from retained EU case law, the circumstances where they may do so and what test may be applied in doing so. It will not be used to set out how the courts are to interpret retained EU case law, because that is a matter for the independent judiciary, and it will not determine that courts may not follow established EU case law.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, made a number of points about unleashing uncertainty. With the greatest respect, Section 6 of the existing 2018 Act already provides that the Supreme Court may depart from established EU case law, although it may take significant time before it comes to address a particular question in a particular case. There is, therefore, what he referred to as “uncertainty with effect from now” if we proceed purely on the basis of Section 6.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, alluded to the issue of precedent and the certainty it brings to the law of the United Kingdom, and he cited the case of Rylands v Fletcher. I recall that as long ago as 1985, in the case of RHM Bakeries v Strathclyde Regional Council, the late Lord Fraser of Tullybelton pointed out that Rylands v Fletcher was not the law of Scotland and he went on to express a judgment that said that it was not the law of England. The point is that with diverse jurisdictions and legal systems within the United Kingdom, there is already room for different sets of precedent and different applications of the law, and we simply have to take account of that. Precedent is a very important aspect of the common law, but it does not bring about uniformity. We have a flexible legal system in Scotland, England and Wales and indeed in Northern Ireland, and we can accommodate the sort of proposal that is being brought forward here in the context of this regulation-making power.
As the noble Lord is aware, there is a level of courts, for example the Sheriff’s Court in Scotland, which is not bound by each other’s judgments, and therefore at that level one could arrive at inconsistency of decision-making, and we are conscious of that. The question is where we should best place the determination, and the whole point of this clause is to allow for the flexibility that is required, upon consultation with the appropriate parties, to determine how we can best achieve the outcome that everyone seeks. I am not in a position to say that it will be just the Supreme Court, as it is under Section 6, or to say that it will be just the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. However, one can see a rationale behind the approaches, both of which have been supported by various noble and learned Lords in the course of this debate. What we want to be able to do is to resolve that debate and achieve a consensus that will bring about the best result for the law of the United Kingdom, given its different legal systems. What we are seeking in the end is certainty for those who seek to litigate in our courts, and we would achieve that by coming to a consensus on how we should look at EU case law going forward.
I cannot accept the amendment and at this time I would urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
No. What is ready to go is a consultation process. That is why we have not reached a conclusion. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, asked two questions, the first of which was, “Are the Government going to use this power?” We are going to use it in order to consult with appropriate parties. May I give examples? Examples have been given by noble and learned Lords. One example is a reference system to the Supreme Court. Another example is to extend this power to the Court of Appeal. That is what we want to determine by virtue of the consultation process we wish to take forward.
Is the Minister saying that when the consultation goes out, it will in effect be saying, “Give us a clue as to what you think makes best sense because we haven’t the faintest idea ourselves”? Are the Government going to express no thoughts about what might be preferable? Have they had no thoughts? Have they not thought about it before now? In every other aspect of Brexit, the Government have clear, dogmatic, unwavering thoughts. On this single one, they appear to have no thoughts at all. Is that not strange?
My Lords, this Government are not dogmatic—the noble Lord is quite wrong about that. Let us be clear: there is a starting point. If I can refer the noble Lord back to Section 6(5) of the 2018 Act, he will see that the starting point is already enacted. However, we want to find a way forward that is more effective and appropriate, and that is the purpose of the consultation process that is allowed for in the clause.
It is not a question of having policy areas in mind. We want to take forward a consultation process that will enable us to arrive at an appropriate conclusion as to how we should look at EU case law as a part of retained EU law after the implementation period has expired.
My Lords, I understand that the first part of the amendment may be reasonably accommodated within the answer given to the previous question about separation of powers. I cannot see how the second part can be accommodated—formulating the question the court has to decide in deciding whether the previous decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union should be followed.
With respect to the noble and learned Lord, we seek to consult on the appropriate test to be applied in taking this matter forward. We intend to do that in consultation with the senior judiciary.
My Lords, given that the existing law has now been in place since 2018 and all that time could have been used for this consultation, why has this suddenly gone in now with the power to make changes by ministerial decision? If it was not felt at the time that the 2018 position was correct, why has this consultation—which could take place without an Act of Parliament—not already taken place?
My Lords, in the interim there had been certain distractions, including a general election—the outcome of which the noble Baroness will be familiar with.
My Lords, may I just be clear? When in future the High Court, say, is given this power to exercise what currently under the practice direction is only for the Supreme Court, will it not merely be saying that we will not follow this precedent from the European Court of Justice, but declaring retrospectively that it was wrong all the time? Or will it be saying in this particular case that we are not going to follow that principle but in all other cases—cases pending, appeals and so forth—we will? In other words, will there be the retrospectivity we now have under the practice direction, with the court declaring what the law in truth is and saying it was wrongly understood before; or is it merely to be, as legislation has it, that this will be the law in future—we are changing it?
That matter will have to be addressed in the context of the regulations that are to be made, but those are the two options available. You can either proceed upon the basis that has pertained since the 1960s, which is, as we have stated, the law as it has always been, or say that the law is about to change. I make the point again that what will be provided for is the circumstances in which a court is not bound by EU case law. It will not be a circumstance in which they are told they are not allowed to follow EU case law; it will be open to them to do so if they wish.
My Lords, I found that a very disappointing response from the Minister, for whom I have great respect. It did not answer the question of which courts would now be part of the process and added to the list; it did not answer the question of what test the Government envisage being introduced through the process; and it did not answer the question of why this is not included in the Bill. The attempt to use the regulation process as an ex post facto defence of the fact that the Government have not come up with a policy yet, but would quite like to talk to some of us about what it might be in the future so that it can be put in regulations, is wholly unconvincing.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, pointed out, he was talking to the Government about this 20 months ago. There has been plenty of time to come up with a policy in the interim and not leave us in this situation where we are told, “It’ll be alright, we will bring in some regulations and discuss them with you all; all your concerns will be accommodated”. I do not think that they have been accommodated at all.
I welcome the intervention from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. As so often on these occasions, he pointed out that with a bit more work, maybe we could get somewhere and achieve something that is consistent with the Government’s intentions but meets people’s concerns.
There are times when Ministers have to recognise the level of feeling and concern which has arisen from significant quarters in the course of Committee proceedings. This has been a remarkable debate and, in the proceedings so far on the Bill, no other debate has brought out such intensity of feeling and concern, particularly from people with significant experience to contribute to the discussion. Ministers have to recognise this. We talk about consultation, and I think that some consultation is required between now and Report.
Certainly, we will want to reflect on what the Minister said on the possibilities—I was encouraged by the intervention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay —and how we can reconcile what the Government are talking about with the need for some degree of certainty around how the law is to be administered in future. We are certainly not there yet. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Amendments 22 and 23 not moved.
Clause 26 agreed.