I haven’t got far with my introduction to English law, but looking ahead, when (if) I get round to the courts, one court of interest is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It’s easy to start looking at this one in isolation. Frances Gibb has an article in the Times headed Does anyone understand what the Privy Council does? which is a good starting point.
Of course, I don’t understand what the Privy Council does, and never have done. What I know a bit about is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Privy Council is one thing, its court another. The same goes for the House of Lords – a chamber of parliament, but containing within it a court, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. It gets confusing when the long name of the court is abbreviated.
So, the Privy Council is a bunch of people whose predecessors once advised the monarch in what I tend to call the Middle Ages. In German it could be called Kronrat. I should think in those days it was clearer who was a member, but nowadays it’s a mystery not just to me. It isn’t a full-time occupation in itself. I liked the quote referring to it only occasionally emerging from the ‘constitutional fog’.
Before I get down to the Judicial Committee, I recommend further reading on what the Privy Council is for those who like obscure knowledge.
Who are Privy Counsellors? Currently there are more than 540, mostly senior politicians who were once MPs. As with a gentlemen’s club or secret society, members swear allegiance to the Queen and to “assist and defend…against all Foreign Princes”.
One thing I don’t think the article mentions is that members of the Privy Council can be recognised by their title – some of them call themselves ‘Right Honorable’, unless they have a superior title. (Note the spelling of Privy Counsellor – I admit that was new to me).
Turning to the court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a relic of the British Empire. It used to be the highest court of appeal for all colonies. It still acts as a court of appeal for the (few) remaining colonies), and some Commonwealth countries have chosen to retain it as their final court of appeal.
(T’he Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent states that used to be colonies).
Its members are the same judges, appointed lords, who constitute the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, plus occasionally one or two judges from whatever jurisdiction the case is about.
It acts as the final court of appeal for many former colonies and UK overseas territories, mainly in the Caribbean but also including appeals from the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, Admiralty appeals from the Cinque Ports, and disciplinary appeals involving doctors and dentists as well as some appeals from ecclesiastical courts.
Since 1998 it has also had power to rule on constitutional appeals arising over devolved powers to Scotland and Wales.
In recent years its overseas jurisdiction has reduced as successive countries have cut off the Privy Council as a court of final appeal: Canada, India, Sri Lanka, African nations, Singapore and, most recently, Hong Kong and New Zealand have all withdrawn.
In all it handles about 55 to 65 Commonwealth and devolution appeals a year, appeals nominally to the Queen as head of state. The judges, notes Mr O’Connor, do not make decisions like other courts; they “humbly advise Her Majesty” whether to grant a petition to the appellant. But the Queen can also refer to it any matter that she wants to. In effect, he says, it is “an embryonic, but unused, constitutional court”.
It’s curious that the court can find itself making decisions on the death penalty, which is not part of English law, or on written constitutions, which the UK does not have.