Friday, February 08, 2008

Lord Bingham on the rule of law

The ever excellent ARCH blog points me to a wonderful speech on the rule of law given by Lord Bingham in 2006. His thoughts on the tension between the government and the judiciary are spot on as you might expect.

"ministers and public officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them reasonably, in good faith, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred and without exceeding the limits of such powers... The historic role of the courts has of course been to check excesses of executive power, a role greatly expanded in recent years due to the increased complexity of government and the greater willingness of the public to challenge governmental (in the broadest sense) decisions. Even under our constitution the separation of powers is crucial in guaranteeing the integrity of the courts' performance of this role.

he British Government, through one entity or another, is very frequently involved in litigation. It is usually successful, but not invariably so. When unsuccessful it is displeased, being driven like every other litigant by a belief in the rightness of its cause but also no doubt by a belief that the public interest is best served by its succeeding. In the past the convention was that ministers, however critical of a judicial decision, and exercising their right to appeal against it or, in the last resort, legislate to reverse it retrospectively, forebore from public disparagement of it. This convention appears to have worn a little thin in recent times, as I think unfortunately, since if ministers make what are understood to be public attacks on judges, the judges may be provoked to make similar criticisms of ministers, and the rule of law is not, in my view, well served by public dispute between two arms of the state. Some sections of the press, with their gift for understatement, have spoken of open war between the government and the judiciary. This is not in my view an accurate analysis. But there is an inevitable, and in my view entirely proper, tension between the two. There are countries in the world where all judicial decisions find favour with the government, but they are not places where one would wish to live. Such tension exists even in quiet times. But it is greater at times of perceived threats to national security, since governments understandably go to the very limit of what they believe to be their lawful powers to protect the public, and the duty of the judges to require that they go no further must be performed if the rule of law is to be observed. This is a fraught area, since history suggests that in times of crisis governments have tended to overreact and the courts to prove somewhat ineffective watchdogs. In our country and in the United States, decisions have been made of which neither country can be proud. The cautionary words of Justice William Brennan of the United States Supreme Court in 1987 remain pertinent:
"There is considerably less to be proud about, and a good deal to be embarrassed about, when one reflects on the shabby treatment civil liberties have received in the United States during times of war and perceived threats to national security … After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along.""

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