Case Not Made

Unconvincing arguments against judicial enforcement of rights under the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998

Policy Exchange has recently posted a paper by Richard Ekins and John Larkin QC on “How and Why to Amend the Human Rights Act 1998“. Lord Sumption has written the foreword, picking up on themes explored in his Reith Lectures, which I have summarised and commented on here. There is much to disagree with in the paper, as well as some interesting ideas. Time permitting I might do a short series of posts on it. For now, I want to focus on one idea raised by Lord Sumption and addressed in a rather different way in the paper. The idea in question is that the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998, and so presumably any constitutional or statutory enactment that grants judges the authority to verify whether legislation and administrative decision-making complies with a set of enumerated individual rights, results in judges making decisions that are political rather than properly judicial.

Lord Sumption writes that the Act “treats broad areas of public policy as questions of law, and not as proper matters for political debate or democratic input”. (5) One example that seems to exercise him ― and that has exercised the UK’s political leaders for years ― is that of the franchise. He denounces the European Court of Human Rights for having rejected prisoner disenfranchisement despite its approbation by legislatures on the basis that “it was a question of law and not a matter for Parliament or any other forum for democratic input”. (5) For Lord Sumption, “the suggestion that the electoral franchise is not a matter in which the representatives of the general body of citizens have any say, seems startling”. (5)

But, more broadly, Lord Sumption argues that cases involving balancing between public policy objectives and individual rights ― which is a great many under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act and, in theory, all of them under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ― are not fit for judicial resolution. Since policy-making means “a choice between competing considerations, and sometimes compromise between them … [i]t is necessarily a political question.” (6) Treating such choice “as a question of legal proportionality, requiring judges rather than elected representatives to assess the relative importance of the various values engaged before deciding which should prevail” (6) is, in his view, a fatal mistake.

As I have previously argued here in response to another distinguished, if less famous, judge, this argument is misconceived. Similarly to Lord Sumption, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench has expressed the worry that

judicial incursion into subject areas and issues of profound political, moral and social complexity[] has the potential effect of removing these issues from the civic and political realms where ongoing and evolving debate and discussion may have taken place.

In response, I pointed out that, taken all the way, this leads one to Jeremy Waldron’s rejection of judicial review of legislation. Chief Justice Joyal did not, ostensibly, want to go all the way. Lord Sumption might ― indeed, he may well want to go beyond Professor Waldron, who specifically objects to strong-form judicial review, where courts can actually refuse to apply legislation, not so much the weak-form arrangement that the Human Rights Act 1998 put in place. But strongly argued though it is, this position is not all that compelling. As I wrote in response to Chief Justice Joyal,

The frontiers between law’s empire and that of politics are not immutable. There is no reason to believe that the position that every social issue is by default subject to politics is entitled to be treated as a baseline against which a polity’s constitutional arrangements ought to be measured, and any departure from it justified and limited. It is the position of some political cultures … But these political cultures have no automatic claim to superiority or to permanence. They are liable to be supplanted, just as they supplanted their predecessors.

Issues cannot be declared political ― or non-political, for that matter ― by stipulation. For instance, the extent of the franchise can meaningfully be addressed in the courts, as it has been under the European Convention and in Canada. It takes more than a bald assertion that this is truly a political matter, or the existence of public controversy, or the involvement of moral considerations, to show that courts should keep out of it or defer to political judgments that are, as often as not, driven by prejudice or self-interest. (As to the point about morality: courts make judgments influenced by morality when applying concepts such as reasonableness, negligence, or unconscionability. One can certainly be sceptical of the resulting jurisprudence, but it’s not plausible to claim that morality is something courts should always stay away from.)

Rather, for any given right that the designers of a constitutional order might consider, they should ask themselves whether, given their respective strengths and weaknesses, a given institution would do a better job of protecting ― better, that is, all things considered, including the downsides of allocating the task to this institution instead of a different one. Institutional considerations have to be front and centre in this analysis. Issues cannot be declared to be political or legal apart from a consideration of actual political and legal institutions that would be dealing with them. Lord Sumption only gestures at institutional factors, claiming that “judges lack the information, experience and democratic legitimacy to make … choices” involved in the proportionality analysis. Even here, the appeal to democratic legitimacy is largely question-begging. It’s not obvious that these choices need to be made democratically, as is evident from the fact that, in the absence of the Human Rights Act, many of them would be made by bureaucrats rather than Parliament.


Professor Ekins and Mr Larkin engage with the institutional issues to a greater extent. To be sure, they too assert that proportionality analysis

requires judges … to answer a series of political questions, about the legitimacy of the legislative objective, the suitability of the means adopted to that objective, and, especially, about the fairness of the balance to be struck between attaining that objective and the claimant’s interest. [33]

But they also say that these “are not questions that a court is well-placed by
training or ethos to answer”. [33] They worry, too, “that courts will be drawn into political controversy, with litigation a rational means to enjoin the court to lend its authority to one’s cause”. [34] They also claim that the outcome of rights litigation often depends on the subjective and personal beliefs of the judges hearing the case (and hence on who happens to be on the relevant court and panel).

What should we make of this? To start, it’s important to note that, although Professor Eakins and Mr Larkin have very little to say about Parliament and the executive, deciding which institution should be given the role to uphold rights is necessarily a comparative exercise. It is not enough to point to the shortcomings of the courts, even if these are real enough. It is necessary to show that courts are worse than legislatures, ministers, and bureaucrats, either on a specific dimension where it is possible to compare them directly or on due to some concerns unique to them. With this in mind, I don’t think that Professor Eakins and Mr Larkin make a convincing case at all.

It is of course true that judges lack the “training” that might be helpful to answer the sort of questions that arise in the course of proportionality analysis. But what training have members of Parliament? What about Ministers? Are they trained to weigh up rights when they make policy? They are not, of course. As for ethos: for the high-minded rhetoric of the defenders of legislative articulation of rights, it is very far from obvious to me that politicians care about rights on a regular basis. They do sometimes, of course, especially if the rights of their constituents may be at issue. But their record is patchy at best, and does not suggest an ethos of weighing up rights and social needs in a rigorous fashion.

The most that Professor Eakins and Mr Larkin say on this is that, when it comes to delegated legislation, “Parliamentary scrutiny, including anticipation of political controversy, is an important discipline on ministers, even if secondary legislation is almost never rejected outright”. [48] We are, I suppose, to take this claim on faith. Meanwhile, Professor Eakins and Mr Larkin also note that there are “limits on parliamentary time” which, they say, combine with “scarcity of political capital” to “make[] it relatively difficult … for Parliament to legislate to correct judicial lawmaking” in relation to rights. [40] To their mind, this is a sign that “judicial lawmaking” needs to be curbed. But one can just as easily argue that limits on Parliament’s time and reluctance (or indeed inability) to spend political capital on decisions that will be unpopular even if right are a key reason for wanting judges to make decisions about rights, especially about the rights “discrete and insular minorities”, in the American parlance, and of especially unpopular groups such as criminal suspects and prisoners (a concern that Professor Waldron, for example, has come to acknowledge).

The concern about courts being drawn into politics is legitimate though it is all too often self-fulfilling, in the sense that it is commentators and politicians who share Professor Eakins’s and Mr Larkin’s views who generate much of the controversy. Still, it is fair to worry about the authority of the courts being undermined by their having to make decisions that are bound to be politically controversial. Then again, would the authority of the judiciary not be negatively affected by its having to blindly apply laws that disregard human rights? Besides, occasional flair-ups of criticism notwithstanding, in countries like the United States in Canada, where courts have been given the mandate to make decisions about rights long before the United Kingdom, their standing in the public opinion is much higher than that of legislatures. Indeed, there is an element of self-contradition in the arguments advanced by Professor Ekins and Mr Larkin: if the courts were really suffering from a legitimacy crisis due to all those controversial decisions the Human Rights Act foisted on them, why would Parliament need to expend scarce political capital on disagreeing with them? The authority of the courts, then, may benefit rather than suffer from their having jurisdiction over rights issues.

As for the alleged subjectivity of judicial decisions regarding rights: I think this too may be an issue. It may be more of an issue in the United Kingdom, where the Supreme Court (almost) never sits en banc, than in the United States and in Canada, whose supreme courts do (respectively always and, these days, usually). Then again, if this is acceptable in other cases, which can also divide the bench, sometimes closely, perhaps this is no more concerning where rights are involved. More importantly, though, the criticism of the courts, in the abstract, does not tell us much. In what sense is decision-making by Parliament, by ministers, or by officials not subjective? When it comes to Parliament and ministers, their inclinations and decisions will fluctuate depending on which party is in power. Precedent and legal doctrine constrain judicial decisions based on rights imperfectly. But if constraint and principle are valuable in such decision-making, then courts still do better than the other branches of government.


So neither Lord Sumption nor Professor Eakins and Mr Larkin have advanced particularly convincing arguments against having judges enforce individual rights. Rights issues are not inherently incapable of judicial enforcement, and the institutional arguments against having the judges deal with them are far from obvious. None of this fully addresses an argument along Waldronian lines, one that is purely about ineradicable disagreement and the fairness of resolving it via democratic procedures. But that argument only goes so far ― and, in particular, as Professor Waldron recognised, I think, it does not obviously apply to prevent courts from overriding decisions by the executive branch, which is what Professor Ekins and Mr Larkin want to do.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

4 thoughts on “Case Not Made”

  1. Maybe I have been too influenced by John Hart Ely, but the extension of the franchise seems like a particularly bad example for those who want to argue that judges should give way to the political process. The whole issue is who gets to participate in the political process!

    I was a bit surprised by your intuition that politicization is more of a problem in final courts that sit in panels that change from case-to-case, like the UK Supreme Court, as compared with those that normally (and on big constitutional issues) sit with a full bench, like the Canadian and US Supreme Court. I would have thought that the lack of knowledge of who is going to be on the next panel that comes down the line would make political coalition behaviour more difficult and would promote deciding on a more neutral basis. At the level of perception, at least, it would make less likely the kind of thing that has happened in the US where the composition of the Supreme Court becomes almost *the* central issue of partisan politics.

  2. I am pretty sympathetic to the Waldronian line, but I agree with you that it is not really relevant to whether there should be judicial review of the executive or soft review or review of questions about who can participate in the political process or about “discrete and insular minorities” if they genuinely cannot get a fair hearing in the legislative arena.

  3. Thanks Leonid – I too find the JR skeptics’ argument particularly puzzling when it comes to disenfranchisement – suffice to think about how we would apply that argument to the acts that extended the franchise to women. I wrote about this extensively some years back, in my ‘legal outlier, again’ BJIL article and in ‘voting eligibility: Strasbourg’s timidity’.

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