#Indyref2: You’ve (not) got the power (or do you?)

The Opinion of Lady Carmichael was published today in the case brought by Martin James Keatings against the Advocate General for Scotland and the Lord Advocate in which he was seeking a declarator from the Court of Session that:

  1. the Scottish Parliament has power under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 to legislate for the holding of a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country, without requiring the consent of the United Kingdom Government or any further amendment, by the Union Parliament, of the Scotland Act 1998 as it stands and
  2. that the Scottish Government’s proposed Act of the Scottish Parliament concerning an independence referendum contains no provision which, if passed by the Parliament, would be outside its legislative competence.

The issues before Lady Carmichael were essentially preliminary ones. To explain, in legal proceedings in Scotland parties can seek to “short-circuit” the process in certain circumstances by taking what are known as “preliminary pleas”; these can be designed to do a number of things, but are usually about either having the case resolved in its entirety without enquiry into the merits or to restrict the scope of the matters upon which evidence will be heard at a proof (for example, by preventing matters which are irrelevant from being probed at proof).

In this case the pursuer, first defender (the Advocate General for Scotland) and the second defender (the Lord Advocate) all had preliminary pleas. The pursuer was seeking decree de plano; essentially, the pursuer was arguing that the case could be resolved in his favour without the need for evidence to be heard at a proof. Meanwhile the first and second defenders had a number of preliminary pleas which overlapped to a great extent, but which were essentially that the pursuer lacked title, interest and standing to bring the case and secondly that even if he did have title, interest and standing to bring the case it was hypothetical, academic and premature. It was also argued that the case was incompetent because it sought to argue that the court did not have the power to grant the declarator sought because there was a legislative process set out in the Scotland Act 1998 (section 33 thereof). The Lord Advocate also sought to argue that the case was really an application to the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court of Session (that is, a judicial review).

In other words the two days or argument heard last month formed part of a debate on the parties’ respective preliminary pleas. This may seem dry and technical, but it is important, in my view, to understanding what Lady Carmichael decided and why.

The decision

The decision is ultimately given at paragraph 139 of the Opinion. That is that the action was hypothetical, academic and premature. In any event, the pursuer lacked standing to being it.

Court’s jurisdiction

Lady Carmichael’s decision deals first with the court’s jurisdiction (starting at para 90). This question was in essence whether the case was really an application to the supervisory jurisdiction and, if so, what was the effect of that (given that it was not brought using the procedures set out in the court’s rules for such cases). Very early on, at paragraph 90, Lady Carmichael tells us her view on this where she says that she does “not accept the second defender’s analysis that in seeking the declarators that he does, the pursuer in substance invokes the supervisory jurisdiction.”

The supervisory jurisdiction of the court can be invoked in the event that the Scottish Parliament acts outside of its legislative competence (this has happened many times, such as in Axa General Insurance Limited and others v Lord Advocate; Imperial Tobacco Limited v The Lord Advocate and The Christian Institute and others v The Lord Advocate). In this case, however, there was no allegation that the Scottish Parliament had exceeded its powers; there was no order being sought to reduce an Act of the Scottish Parliament or to require performance in relation to an omission. In essence, the pursuer was seeking the advice of the court as to the extent of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. However, the proceedings were “not applications to the supervisory jurisdiction.” (para 95).

Lady Carmichael also observed that even if they had been proceedings that were properly seeking the court to exercise its supervisory jurisdiction she would have been “reluctant to dispose of [the] proceedings (…) simply on the basis that they had been raised using the wring procedure.” (para 97) This was because, in essence, the means of disposing of a case that had been brought using the wrong procedure would not necessarily be to dismiss the proceedings, but rather it is likely that the court’s disposal would be to exercise its powers under the court’s rules to order that the case should proceed as a judicial review (para 99). Lady Carmicahel did not seem impressed with the second defender’s arguments in this regard pointing out that this sort of preliminary plea (i.e. one seeking dismissal on the grounds of incompetence where a mechanism existed to have the case assigned to the correct procedure) was of the kind which had been “deprecated” in a previous decision (para 101).

In essence, had it been the case that the matter should have proceeded by way of judicial review; the second defender should have (as it appears he had previously contemplated) made the appropriate motion at an earlier stage of the proceedings to have the action dealt with as a judicial review.

Does section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 exclude the pursuer from bringing the action?

On this point, raised by the defenders, Lad Carmicahel considers that it was unnecessary to decide this point, but expressed the view that she doubted that it was true.

Was the action hypothetical, premature and academic and did the pursuer have standing?

At paragraph 103 of her Opinion, Lady Carmicahel notes that “consideration by a court of proposed legislation will normally be hypothetical and premature at any point before it is in its final form and has been passed by Parliament.” This is essentially because there is a range of things that can happen with a Bill as it proceeds through the parliamentary process: it could fail, it could be amended to bring it within competence and it could even be amended to take it outwith competence.

The pursuer contended that the decision in Wightman v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (which was the case that concerned whether the United Kingdom had the unilateral power to revoke its notice of its intention to leave the EU) meant that he had title, interest and standing to bring the present case. The pursuer’s argument here was essentially that a vote (a general election to the Scottish Parliament) was going to take place at which there would be before the electorate a promise to hold a referendum on independence whether the UK Government agreed or not. The pursuer argued that it was therefore necessary for the court to answer this question so that voters could make an informed decision. This, the pursuer said, was the same as the situation before the court in Wightman.

The defenders contended that only those with statutory functions under the Scotland Act 1998 (i.e. the Advocate General for Scotland, the Lord Advocate and the Attorney General) could ever have sufficient interest to bring a question to the court pertaining to the lawfulness of a proposed Act of the Scottish Parliament prior to the legislation having been granted Royal Assent. Lady Carmichael concluded (at para 126) that she did not need to answer this question, but doubted the correctness of the defenders’ position.

Lady Carmicahel also concluded (at para 128) that she did not need to reach a view on what intentions the Scottish Government had in respect of any draft bill. Lady Carmichael considered that this would not be determinative of whether there existed an issue of law on which the purser was entitled to a declarator from the court (para 128). The question for the court, in respect of the preliminary issues before it, was whether the court should provide an answer to the questions posed by the pursuer and not what the answers to those questions were (para 128).

Lady Carmicahel records that the pursuer advanced six reasons was to why the court was obliged to make the declarator, or declarators, sought. These are set out in paragraph 129 of Lady Carmichael’s Opinion. In respect of the first two, Lady Carmicahel concluded that they were “plainly raised prematurely”, were “hypothetical, and may never come to pass” (para 130). Lady Carmicahel noted that “answers provided by the court now, whether in the abstract, or on the basis of a draft bill, would not serve to avoid the difficulties apprehended by the pursuer” (para 130). Other remedies were available; any bill passed could be referred by one or more law officers to the Supreme Court, but even if it were not the act could be judicially reviewed and all of this could be achieved before any referendum was conducted under the authority of the legislation in question (para 130).

Adjudicating an on the lawfulness of proposed legislation before it is passed by the Scottish Parliament would be “premature and pointless” because it could be changed by amendments in Parliament before it is passed (para 131).

In respect of the case of Wightman, Lady Carmichael observed the discriminating approach adopted by the First Division of the Inner House in respect of whether the petitioners in that case had sufficient interest. The Division was only satisfied as to the sufficient interest in respect of the sole petitioner who was a MP and who would have had to participate in an inevitable vote (para 133). In Wightman, the votes of MPs would have directly determined “a matter of importance to every citizen of the United Kingdom” (para 133) and were voting in relation to a single issue (also at para 133). This was contrary to the position in a general election where the votes case by individuals are influenced by a range of different matters (para 137).

Lady Carmicahel also observed that “the ability to campaign politically or lobby for a desired result does not necessarily depend on information as to whether or not that result can be achieved with a change in he existing law” (para 135). Lady Carmicahel stated that “there is not the close relationship between the right to campaign and the advice sought that there was between the vote in which the MPs in Wightman were to be engaged and the advice that they sought” (para 135).

There is a difference between voters electing individuals to sit in Parliament and the votes undertaken by elected members in parliament. The pursuer sought to characterise the voters as the decision-makers as to whether legislation would be introduced, promoted and passed; however, Lady Carmichael did not accept that as being correct (para 136).

Lady Carmichael observed that it’s “important, that matters which may properly be the subject of political debate and campaigning in the democratic process are permitted to unfold and be worked out in the political process, and that the courts intervene only when they need to do so to fulfil their function as guardians of the rule of law” (para 141).

For the reasons set out in her Opinion, Lady Carmichael dismissed the pursuer’s action and observed that it was unnecessary and inappropriate for her to express an opinion on the question of law the pursuer sought an answer to (para 142).

Comment

Lady Carmichael’s decision is pretty lengthy and deals with a lot of issues that people only concerned with the answer to the main question will not be interested in.

I think it’s important to note a couple of things in respect of this case. Firstly, although it sought a decision on whether the Scottish Parliament could legislate for a referendum on independence, that question has not been answered. Indeed, Lady Carmichael expressed no view at all on the question. The result should not be read as agreeing with one side or the other on the answer to that question. In essence, if the courts are to answer that question it should be, in the opinion of Lady Carmichael, done once the legislation has been placed into its final form and passed by the Scottish Parliament.

There would be nothing at all stopping any member of the Scottish Parliament introducing legislation for a referendum on independence and the parliament then debating that legislation, amending it and passing it. The question would then be, if it was referred to the Supreme Court, whether the Scottish Parliament would have legislative competence at the point the bill is granted Royal Assent (Reference by the Attorney General and Advocate General for Scotland in respect of the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, para 90); or whether the Scottish Parliament had legislative competence at the point of Royal Assent in the event of a challenge by way of judicial review after the fact.

The matter therefore remains undecided (as do other matters, such as whether section 33 does or does not exclude challenges pre-Royal Assent by persons other than the law officers referred to in that section). The pursuer has already indicated an intention to reclaim (appeal) the decision of Lady Carmichael to the Inner House of the Court of Session. In terms of the court’s rules he has 21 days in which to do so. It therefore seems that this is not the last word on this particular action and it’s certainly not the last word on the question of legislative competence.