#IndyRef2 and the Supreme Court

On 28 June 2022, the Lord Advocate lodged a reference with the UK Supreme Court under paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998. The reference concerns whether the Scottish Parliament has legislative competence to legislate for a referendum, specifically in relation to a draft Bill. The question, set out at paragraph 21 of the Lord Advocate’s reference, the Supreme Court is invited to answer is:

“Does the provision of the proposed Scottish Independence Referendum Bill that provides that the question to be asked in a referendum would be “Should Scotland be an independent country?” relate to reserved matters? In particular, does it relate to: (i) the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England (para.1(b) of Schedule 5); and/or (ii) the Parliament of the United Kingdom (para.1(c) of Schedule 5)?”

The UK Government is reportedly asking the Supreme Court to dismiss the reference. Firstly, on the substantive question, that the Scotland Act does not confer legislative competence on the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum on independence. Secondly, on a more technical basis, that the reference is premature on the basis that the Scotland Act 1998 makes express provision for scrutiny of Bills by the Supreme Court, which begins after the Bill has completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament. The UK Government’s position is not unexpected, and they are doing nothing improper in seeking to argue that paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 does not confer jurisdiction on the Supreme Court to determine the legislative competence of a proposed Bill.

Those who have been following the legal wranglings over the Scottish Parliament’s competence in this area will be familiar with the case brought by Martin Keatings, in which the Lord Advocate’s predecessor and the Advocate General for Scotland were at one in arguing that Mr Keatings’ case was premature. Both succeeded in the Outer House (before Lady Carmichael) and in the Inner House (before the First Division comprising the Lord President, Lord Menzies and Lord Doherty).

Schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998 is concerned with what are known as “Devolution Issues” and consists of 38 paragraphs divided into 5 parts. For present purposes, only paragraphs 1 and 34 are of relevance.

Paragraph 1 defines what constitutes a “devolution issue” for the purposes of the whole schedule. The Lord Advocate relies on paragraph 1(f), which states “any other question about whether a function is exercisable within devolved competence or in or as regards Scotland and any other question arising by virtue of this Act about reserved matters.”

Paragraph 34 provides that “[t]he Lord Advocate, the Attorney General, the Advocate General or the Advocate General for Northern Ireland may refer to the Supreme Court any devolution issue which is not the subject of proceedings.” Schedule 6 is mostly concerned with devolution issues which arise in the context of ongoing cases before the courts in Scotland, England and Wales and Northern Ireland; however, this one paragraph provides a power for one or more Law Officers to refer directly to the Supreme Court any devolution issue which is not the subject of ongoing litigation in the courts.

When the reference was first announced, a number of commentators queried whether paragraph 34 covers the question raised by the Lord Advocate in her reference.

Paragraph 1(f) is drawn in apparently wide terms; however, it must be read in context. It forms part of a list of other things which are devolution issues, this includes “a question whether an Act of the Scottish Parliament or any provision of an Act of the Scottish Parliament is within the legislative competence of the Parliament.” Importantly, that list of things only refers to Acts and makes no reference to Bills. The Scotland Act 1998 provides elsewhere for the scrutiny of Bills for legislative competence by the Supreme Court. Those provisions are to be found in section 33, which provides that the Lord Advocate, Advocate General and Attorney General for England and Wales may refer a Bill, or any part of a Bill, to the UK Supreme Court in the 4-week period following it being passed by the Scottish Parliament. This has been done three times before in relation to Bills passed by the Scottish Parliament: the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill; the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. In all three cases those references were made by the UK Law officers (the Advocate General and Attorney General).

The Inner House in Keatings concluded that Section 33 was the only way in which Bills could be scrutinised before becoming an Act of the Scottish Parliament. In his opinion, the Lord President states the following, at paragraphs 60 and 61:

[60] It is important in limine to make a clear distinction between an Act of the Parliament and a Bill. Only a provision of an Act can be outwith legislative competence (1998 Act, s 29(1)). The contents of a Bill cannot be, since a Bill has no legislative force. The 1998 Act makes express provision for both the person in charge of a Bill and the Presiding Officer to express their views on legislative competence. The phraseology is careful and is designed to ensure that such an expression does not amount to a decision which is subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the court. The Act goes on to provide expressly for the scrutiny of Bills at a stage after a Bill has been passed by the Parliament but prior to it receiving Royal Assent. It has confined that scrutiny to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and then only on the application, within a limited window of time, of the principal law officers of Scotland and the United Kingdom (1998 Act, s 33(1)). This is the only method of scrutinising a measure for legislative competency prior to Royal Assent.

[61] If it were otherwise, there would be the potential for conflict between applications which challenge competency made by other persons to the Court of Session or a sheriff court in advance of Royal Assent. Put another way, “the coexistence of two systems, overlapping but varying in matters of detail… would be a recipe for chaos” (R (Child Poverty Action Group), Lord Dyson at para 35 citing Unisys [2003] 1 AC 518 Lord Millett at para 80). The time frame for applications to the UK Supreme Court would be rendered somewhat redundant, if an application from one of the law officers could be made prior to the passing of the Bill by the Parliament. The idea that the law officers are able to seek such scrutiny only after the passing of a Bill would be rendered nugatory if they could do so during the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

It should be noted that the opinion was given without the court having been addressed on paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 or, seemingly, it ever having been brough to the attention of the Court. However, that aside, there appears to be a logic to the Court’s position (a position which was advanced by both the Advocate General and the Lord Advocate). Section 33 would more or less be redundant if the principal law officers could simply refer Bills at any stage.

The problem with a court giving a judgment on legislative competence before a Bill completes its passage through the Scottish Parliament is that a Bill can be amended in any number of ways at various points through that process. Those amendments could conceivably take a Bill, or part of a Bill, outwith competence that had, until the point it was amended, been within competence. You could also end up with a situation where, for example, the Advocate General for Scotland refers a Bill upon its introduction and while the Supreme Court is hearing that reference, the Scottish Parliament debates and amends the Bill (or debates the Bill and decides, at Stage 1, not to progress the Bill any further), which leaves the court assessing an outdated position and rendering its judgment academic. It therefore doesn’t address the core issue and wouldn’t prevent challenges under section 33 (prior to Royal Assent) or through judicial review(after Royal Assent) in respect of any changes made to the Bill.

The logic of the opinion of the First Division of the Inner House, appears to hold true when applied to paragraph 34 of Schedule 6. It is certainly arguable that paragraph 34 of Schedule 6, given its wide terms, confers a power on the Lord Advocate to make this reference, but for what it is worth, my view is that it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will accept that is the position. I suspect that the Supreme Court will approve of the essential conclusions reached by the Inner House in paragraphs 60 and 61 of Keatings and dismiss the reference, leaving open the option for the Advocate General, Attorney General or Lord Advocate to refer a Bill after it has been passed.

What that will mean for the proposed Bill will remain to be seen. It appears from the reference that other parts of the Lord President’s opinion in Keatings causes some issues for the Lord Advocate in being able to sign-off on the Bill being within competence. At paragraph 4 of the reference, the Lord Advocate refers to comments made by the Lord President at paragraph 66 of his opinion in Keatings. In particular, where the Lord President expresses the view that “it may not be too difficult to arrive at a conclusion, but that is a matter, perhaps, for another day.” When read in context, it certainly appears that the Lord President is of the view that such a Bill would be outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament; however, he stopped short of stating that and, in any event, as the decision in the case had been reached for other reasons any views expressed on the substantive merits is obiter (something expressed in a judgment that is not essential to the decision and therefore not binding as precedent).

When a Bill is introduced into the Scottish Parliament, section 31 of the Scotland Act 1998 requires the person in charge of the Bill (in the case of a Bill introduced by the Scottish Government, this would be one of the Scottish Ministers) and the Presiding Officer to decide whether or not in their view the provisions of the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish parliament and to state their view.

However, the Scottish Ministerial Code goes further; it requires that, before a Minister states that it is their view that the provisions would be within competence, they must get the statement cleared by the Law Officers (i.e. the Lord Advocate and/or the Solicitor General for Scotland). This raises another potential problem with the reference; it essentially flows from a condition imposed on the Scottish Ministers by the First Minister through the Scottish Ministerial Code rather than the Scotland Act 1998. It is, of course, a good idea for Scottish Ministers to get a view from the Law Officers on legislative competence, but in law, the burden rests on them. It would also be reckless for them to introduce a Bill against legal advice which expressed a clear view that the provisions, in the opinion of the Law Officers, would be outwith competence.

The Lord Advocate has not stated, at least publicly, that it is her view that the provisions are outwith legislative competence. Indeed, it must (in my view) be inferred from the reference that the Lord Advocate considers it at least statable that there is legislative competence. The Lord Advocate talks about lacking the “necessary degree of confidence”; nobody really knows what that is. It’s not set out in the Scotland Act or in the ministerial code and may well differ from Lord Advocate to Lord Advocate. Some might settle for a statable case, some might want there to be one with a real prospect of success (still a low hurdle, but higher than merely statable) while another might require something more certain than that.

Whether, in the event that the Supreme Court disagrees with the Lord Advocate’s view on the extent of paragraph 34 of Schedule 6, the Lord Advocate then decides to clear the statement and allow the Bill to be introduced (and no doubt passed) is, of course, a matter for her; as is whether she then refers any Bill passed under section 33. The Scottish Ministerial Code, like its counterpart, is not really law. It sets out how (in this instance) the First Minister expects Scottish Ministers and Junior Scottish Ministers to conduct their duties and the expected standard of conduct.

Lord Advocate’s apparent change of position

It will be clear to anyone who has been following this saga (and hopefully to anyone who has read what I have said up until this point) that the position adopted by the present Lord Advocate appears to be rather different in some respects to that of her predecessor.

It is, of course, not uncommon for two lawyers to take different views on what the correct answer is to a particular legal problem. At paragraph 13 the Lord Advocate deals, in some way, with Keatings by saying:

“The observations of the Lord President in Keatings should be read subject to para.34 and para 1(f) of Schedule 6 SA. In the context such a qualification was not suggested on behalf of the Lord Advocate in Keatings, and to that extent, the present Lord Advocate departs from that position. The Lord Advocate’s position on Keatings will be more fully explained in her Written Case for this Reference.”

We await to see the written case of the Lord Advocate to see how this position is developed. However, it would appear that a probable line of argument will be that there are material difference between the Lord Advocate’s position and that of Mr Keatings (assuming the interpretation of paragraph 34 of Schedule 6 put forward by the Lord Advocate is correct).

If the Lord Advocate’s position that she has a power under paragraph 34 of the Scotland Act 1998 to refer a proposed Bill to the Supreme Court is correct, it would place her in a very different position to that of Mr Keatings. While some of the same issues arise in relation to amendment etc, the Lord Advocate would be relying upon a statutory power conferred by Parliament rather than the common law. Therefore, the Supreme Court would, irrespective of any reservations it might have with giving such a judgment, be required to answer the substantive question posed by the Lord Advocate in the reference as that is what the UK Parliament had decided that it should do.

This is certainly an interesting reference and even if we do not get an answer to the substantive question at this time, it will likely result in the Supreme Court giving its judgment on the extent of paragraph 34 of Schedule 6. Hopefully the UK Government will publish its response to the reference and both parties will, in due course, publish their written cases. The case has already attracted a considerable degree of public comment, being able to see and understand the parties’ respective positions would be of great assistance.

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