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UK public law is often viewed as a sophisticated power struggle between rival institutions, an approach encouraged by the assumption that the law is ultimately dependent on such contingencies as the existence of an official consensus about its sources. From that perspective, legal judgments should be read as strategic moves within the political power-game. We can make better sense of public law if, instead, we interpret it as the articulation and enforcement of standards of legitimate governance, inspired by universal ideals of individual freedom and human dignity. The rule of Law denies the legal validity of arbitrary, unjustified assertions of power inimical to those ideals. Positive law is, at root, an instantiation of natural law, as the interplay of legal rule and underlying principle, characteristic of common law reasoning, confirms. There are important implications for our understanding of the constitutional foundations of judicial review, the limits of parliamentary sovereignty, the nature of the principle of legality, and the scope and content of fundamental rights.
Legal judgment, I argue, entails moral judgment; legal obligations, correctly identified, are genuine moral obligations. Dworkin's legal theory is instructive, but problematic: his account of integrity fails to provide a convincing reconciliation of practice and principle. We can, however, defend a superior account in which the moral ideals that we invoke to justify legal practice – affirming its legitimacy under certain conditions – retain their force throughout our judgments about its specific demands in particular cases. Common law reasoning exemplifies that approach, reflecting the interdependence of practice and principle. It is an internal, interpretative inquiry, drawing on the moral resources of our own tradition, treated as an influential guide to the requirements of justice. The law is constituted, accordingly, neither by its socially authoritative sources, whatever their merits, nor by the moral effects of our legal practice. It is rather the scheme of justice we construct in our continuing efforts to bring our practice closer to the ideals that inspire and redeem it.
The difference of judicial opinion in the Supreme Court in Evans provokes reflection on fundamental constitutional principles, such as parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. A statute that on its face seems to permit a government minister to override a judicial decision of which he disapproves inevitably raises acute concern; the correct reading of the statute depends on the most persuasive integration of basic principles, placing the text within its wider constitutional context. The Justices deployed distinctions between law, fact, and public interest in rather different ways, reflecting their divergent interpretative approaches. The role of constitutional convention is also of particular interest – central to the legal issues arising, on one view, but largely irrelevant on another. At the root of these disagreements lie contrasting conceptions of law and adjudication.
R (Evans) v Attorney General  UKSC 21;  2 W.L.R. 813 is a case of real constitutional interest and importance. The division of opinion within the Supreme Court reflects divergent conceptions of fundamental principle. While all the Justices affirmed the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, they understood them differently, resulting in disagreement about their correct reconciliation on the facts of the case. The majority of Justices achieved a real integration of these basic principles in a manner that the dissentients’ superficially more straightforward approach did not.
Alan Brudner’s closely-argued, richly-textured and wide-ranging work, Constitutional Goods, provides a striking and original account of the rule of law and its implications for legitimate government. Since the rule of law includes the enforcement of substantive principles ofjustice, it requires a clear separation of powers between court and legislature. The role of the court is chiefly confined to pure practical reason, determining what the public reason of the liberal consti-tution requires. It is the role of the legislative assembly to give its assent to governmental measures that apply the principles ofjustice to empirical circumstances, where the scope for reasonable disagreement provokes a transition from natural law to political judgment. Judicial review carries no anti-democratic implications because it defends the conceptual boundaries of popular decision-making: ‘Democracy is not defeated but protected if the court invalidates a law no free person could impose on himself, for the majority has no more authority to pass such a law than an autocrat nor any jurisdiction to decide by fiat a question to which there is a correct legal answer.’
ENGLISH public law has gained in coherence with the gradual disappearance of rigid doctrinal barriers to judicial review. The repudiation of earlier restrictions on review of ministers’ exercise of the royal prerogative marked a particularly significant step towards a more rational system of legal control. It is true that acknowledgement of the susceptibility of prerogative decisions to judicial review, in principle, was accompanied by warnings about the constraints of justiciability in practice; but the various supposed categories of non-justiciable decision-making have been gradually breached and eroded in the course of common law development. When individual rights have required protection, neither the formal source of the power in question nor its intrinsically discretionary character have proved impenetrable barriers to judicial scrutiny.
[A]cts of parliament that are impossible to be performed are of no validity: and if there arise out of them collaterally any absurd consequences, manifestly contradictory to common reason, they are, with regard to those collateral consequences, void. … [W]here some collateral matter arises out of the general words, and happens to be unreasonable; there the judges are in decency to conclude that this consequence was not foreseen by the parliament, and therefore they are at liberty to expound the statute by equity, and only quoad hoc disregard it.
The essay questions the sense and purpose of current debate over the coherence of the ultra vires doctrine. It argues that the dispute is mainly semantic, serving to conceal rather than illuminate genuine questions about the nature and legitimacy of judicial review. If the doctrine’s opponents are right to emphasise the common law basis of the relevant standards of legality, abstractly conceived, the ultra vires school is equally right to insist that, in a statutory context, legislative intention is critical to the application of such standards. To connect the present debate with significant issues of substance, it would have to be recast as one between those favouring a “normativist” grounding of judicial review in the rule of law, on the one hand, and their “functionalist” or “pluralist” opponents, generally hostile to judicial review, on the other. The futility of the present debate is revealed by the simultaneous adherence of both sides to an integrated “rule of law” perspective. A useful analysis of the foundations of judicial review, capable of illuminating issues of substance, must explore the true meaning of the interrelated concepts of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. No attack on the “empty formalism” of the ultra vires doctrine can carry conviction while at the same time affirming the doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, a doctrine equally malleable in the hands of judicial interpreters of statute, guided by common law precepts.
The freedom to criticise government, and even to counsel disobedience or revolt, is widely considered the principal mark of a free society. Where the dissident voice is silenced by laws against sedition, it has been argued, there is no genuine freedom of speech and, accordingly, no real political freedom.2 The force of this suggestion stems from the underlying idea that government, if constitutional and legitimate, should be government by consent: laws against sedition, or which otherwise curtail political debate in order to silence opposition, repudiate that idea by denying the legitimacy of dissent.