The nation’s eyes were fixed today on the UK Supreme Court as it hears the government’s appeal to overturn a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process without first winning a vote of MPs in parliament. But the arcane, complex and remote British judicial system makes it almost impossible for even informed citizens to follow proceedings or judge the validity of the court’s eventual findings for themselves
Unlike the much more famous United States Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is televised – anybody can log onto the court’s website and watch cases being heard via live webcast, including the momentous case currently before the court, in which the government is appealing a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally begin the Brexit process without first gaining the assent of MPs in a parliamentary vote.
And so today the British news channels spent large parts of the day simply broadcasting the goings-on in Court room 1, where the appeal is being heard. Anybody with a passing interest was able to tune in and watch for themselves as the government’s legal team, led by the Attorney General, made their case to the eleven justices (incidentally the first time that all eleven had sat together for the same case).
And yet despite this wall-to-wall media coverage, I doubt that more than a fraction of those who watched any of the proceedings really understood what was happening, or could place the appeal and the arguments being made in the context of Britain’s judicial system and how it fits into our system of government. I include myself in that group of confused onlookers. And if citizens do not understand the basic workings of one of the three branches of government, how are they to know whether the decisions reached are just and legitimate? And how are they to confer their own legitimacy of acceptance upon those institutions?
If a case about mass surveillance makes it to the US Supreme Court, many Americans will automatically recognise that this concerns the Fourth Amendment (forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures of property by government). They may not know much more than that, but the fact that America has a written constitution gives even ill-educated citizens a basic frame of reference when discussing newsworthy legal matters, while a fundamental education in civics teaches them that a president or Congress cannot simply override the rulings of the Supreme Court if they find them inconvenient – and that trying to sidestep the court by amending the Constitution is prohibitively difficult, thus forming one of the famous “checks and balances” in the American system of government.
Contrast this basic civic awareness in America with the dire state of affairs in Britain. Although I do not have an opinion poll to back me up, I would be surprised if one third of British citizens knew that we even had a Supreme Court (it was only founded in 2009, taking over from the previous Law Lords), let alone the names of a single one of its justices.
(Incidentally, the PC Left and rabid practitioners of identity politics are missing a trick here – ten of the eleven current justices of the UK Supreme Court are old white men, with the remaining justice an old white woman. Are these people really the most qualified for the job, or did they get their positions through the chumocracy and establishment connections? Why is there no public confirmation process, to give democratic oversight to the selection of new justices, as there is in America? And yet how many times has the UK Supreme Court been picketed by angry Social Justice Warriors demanding gender and ethnic balance on the court? Never.)
I will be honest and start by admitting that prior to the EU referendum campaign this year, I could only name one justice of the UK Supreme Court – Lord Neuberger, the court’s president. And that’s awful. I write about politics and UK current affairs every day and consume several hours of news on television, the internet and social media besides, but I could only name one person on the bench of the UK Supreme Court. I could speak for hours about the US Supreme Court, its current and past justices and many of the famous cases it has decided, but not so for the Supreme Court of my own country. And if I can’t rattle off a handful of facts and names together with a brief commentary on their respective legal and ideological outlooks, how many people are actually able to do so?
How many laymen – people without a direct professional or personal interest in the workings or judgements of the court – actually do know who sits on the UK’s Supreme Court? How many could explain at a high level how the judicial system works, with the division between civil and criminal court, the work done by solicitors and barristers, and the hierarchy of trial and appellate courts? Or the difference between the Scottish system and that of England and Wales? All that I currently know, I learned from an Introduction to Business Law course while studying at university – there were no civics lessons in the 1990s National Curriculum while I was at school. And many others will not have even received this basic primer.
But how are we to fulfil our potential as informed and engaged citizens when we fail to understand how one of the three major branches of government works? Most people have a passable grasp of the executive and the legislature, even if they don’t recognise the Government and the Houses of Parliament using those terms. But I very much doubt that one adult in twenty could explain the fundamentals of our legal system, let alone the many layered intricacies.
But flip it around. Why would we know how our legal system works, or recognise the major personalities in the British legal scene? And why should we bother to take the time to educate ourselves?
People in America know the names and ideological leanings of the justices on their Supreme Court for a number of reasons. For a start, they take their civics a little bit more seriously on that side of the Atlantic – something that we could learn from.
But more than that, the American legal system is far more responsive to the citizenry than the British system is to us. One major difference is that many local judges are elected. Now, this may or may not be a good idea – and having watched a number of local races for positions on the bench, I have my grave doubts as to the wisdom of elected judges. But you can’t deny that you are likely to feel much closer to the legal system if you have a direct say in who gets to don the black robes.
Even more important is the fact that unlike we Brits, Americans have a written constitution to act as a common frame of reference when talking about legal matters. Even half-educated Americans will talk about whether something is “constitutional” or not, and apply this test to all manner of public policy debates, from government surveillance to gay marriage. This is important, because it gets people thinking beyond the mere fact of whether they agree or disagree with a particular law, and toward the broader question of exactly why the law in question is good or bad. That’s not to say the ensuing debate cannot still be ignorant and intemperate – it often is – but at least everyone is able to take part in the debate along the same parameters.
Consider the Edward Snowden leaks, when one whistleblower’s actions laid bare the extent of secret government surveillance in Britain, America and the other “Five Eyes” countries. In America, the people – outraged at this secret, systemic violation of their privacy – were able to haul officials in front of congressional committees and debate the legality of the government’s actions with reference to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property. And in due course, the American government had to make a number of concessions and restrict its surveillance activity. In Britain, by contrast, we had David Cameron and Theresa May pompously telling us that they respect the “tradition of liberty” but are basically going to do whatever they want. And what recourse had we to stop them? None.
Then there is the central role which the US Supreme Court often plays in matters of great social importance in America. In Britain, Parliament’s “elected dictatorship” is the Alpha and the Omega for nearly all significant decisions made in this country – the government can pass or repeal any law almost at will and with no reference to any higher text or law, so long as it can muster the votes in the House of Commons. The courts then simply apply what has been handed down by Parliament, which is sovereign. Refreshingly, this is not so in the United States.
Consider just some of the most famous cases – household names, even to those of us living in Britain. Dred Scott. Citizens United. Roe vs Wade. Brown vs Board of Education. We may know next to nothing about American current affairs, but we know that these relate to slavery, campaign finance, abortion and racial segregation. Because in America, the president is not the only person who matters in politics. Nor are the leaders of Congress. The third branch of government matters equally, and how the Supreme Court chooses which cases to hear and applies their interpretation of the Constitution to those cases constitutes a vital check and balance in the American system.
Can you name a comparably important British legal case? They do exist – the Al Rawi case, for example, with its implications for the legality of secret hearings, or Nicklinson vs Ministry of Justice, which confirmed the current illegality of voluntary euthanasia, or the “right to die”. But few people know about these cases or why they are important, because the British legal system is so much more remote and unaccountable to the people.
Finally, there is the question of sovereignty. The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not constitutional, and therefore applicable to American citizens. It cannot be shunted aside by an impatient government if it holds up or overturns key legislation, and nor can it be undermined from the outside – the court determines for itself which cases it will hear, and a majority decision made by five out of nine Supreme Court justices will then bind the government and lower courts. This goes against everything that the current British establishment – who are only too happy to wreck every institution and overturn any tradition in pursuit of their short term goals – stands for.
But crucially, the US Supreme Court is also not subordinate to any external or foreign body. By contrast, until Brexit is completed, the UK Supreme Court is treaty-bound to defer to the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and must interpret all UK legislation not through the lens of compatibility with a British constitution, but rather to ensure its compliance with EU law and the European Convention of Human Rights.
This begs the question why we as a country do not trust ourselves enough to be the final arbiter of important issues affecting our society. Are we naturally more corrupt, untrustworthy or barbarous than our European neighbours, and in need of constant judicial restraint by our moral betters on the continent? Whatever the answer, the inescapable truth is that legal subjugation to an external, supranational body is the antithesis of national democracy.
So to recap, there exist a number of deficits between the American and UK legal systems in terms of ensuring citizen understanding and engagement with the judicial branch of government, namely:
1. A weaker sense of civic duty and engagement in Britain
2. Greater democratic distance between the people and the legal system in Britain, compared to America
3. Lack of a written British constitution as a common frame of reference when discussing legal matters
4. A much clearer link between decisions made in the US Supreme Court with American social policy
5. Lack of sovereignty: the American legal system is sovereign and subordinate to no external body, unlike the British legal system which (for now) remains subordinate to EU law
But in 2016, in the wake of the Brexit vote and with a key court case relating to the government’s execution of the referendum mandate to leave the EU having reached the Supreme Court, there is simply no good argument for continuing to abide such a remote, elitist and unaccountable legal system as we suffer in Britain. None. Especially when other countries, including our closest ally, have demonstrated a far better approach.
And anybody tempted to sniff haughtily at the American system, with their elected lower court judges and Scopes Monkey Trial culture wars should remember that however passionate and unseemly the public discourse can sometimes be across the Atlantic, this is only because more American people are actually engaged citizens with a moderate grasp of how their country actually works, and therefore confident enough to participate in that process. We should be so lucky to have a system as simple, accessible and easy to explain as they have in the United States.
And it should be a source of great shame to us that our journalists, politicians and private citizens often know more about another country’s legal system through watching Hollywood movies or Law & Order than they do about our own.
Right now, the American public is fixated on the issue of who President-elect Donald Trump will nominate to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia – a first rate mind and writer of opinions and dissents which are accessible and entertaining even to laymen like myself. Americans care about who takes up the ninth seat on their Supreme Court, because unlike Britain, their legal system is clearly more than a plaything of the establishment or a rubber stamp for the government of the day.
The ninth justice of the US Supreme Court may well end up casting crucial swing votes in important matters of human governance in the next decades, such as the right to bear arms in self defence, the right to privacy and the right to free speech. And these decisions could well have tangible, real-world consequences for the 330 million people who live under the court’s jurisdiction.
Elevating the people and the institutions into the public consciousness is not crass sensationalism, as some may charge. On the contrary, focusing on the personalities helps to elevate the issues to a place of prominence in our public discourse, which is exactly what we should be doing here if our own elites were not so busy trying to hide from public accountability anywhere they can scurry – be it behind the black veil of EU lawmaking in Brussels or the bewigged, dusty obscurity of the British legal system.
It will be ironic if it takes a bitter legal dispute over a referendum fought partly over the principle of restoring the supremacy of British laws to force Britain to finally take a proper, critical look at our currently impenetrable legal system. But public interest in legal matters peaks only very rarely, and so those of us who want to see real legal and constitutional reform have a slim opportunity – but also an obligation – to make our case.
For as things stand, a constitution and legal system in force over 3,000 miles and an ocean apart often feels more familiar – and less remote – than our own.
As things stand, the highest court in our country is hearing arguments and preparing to make a decision concerning the most significant political change to come to Britain since the Second World War, yet for most of us, the judges and lawyers may just as well be speaking in Klingon for all that we will learn from the proceedings.
And a legal system which is made deliberately opaque and inaccessible by definition can neither claim legitimacy nor deliver justice, on the Article 50 appeal or anything else.
Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:
Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.