THE NATURE OF PARLIAMENTARY
The sovereignty of Parliament is (from a legal point of view) the dominant characteristic of our political institutions. My aim in this chapter is, in the first place, to explain the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty and to show that its existence is a legal fact, fully recognised by the law of England; in the next place, to prove that none of the alleged legal limitations on the sovereignty of Parliament have any existence; and, lastly, to state and meet certain speculative difficulties which hinder the ready admission of the doctrine that Parliament is, under the British constitution, an absolutely sovereign legislature.
NATURE OF PARLIAMENTARY SOVEREIGNTY
Parliament means, in the mouth of a lawyer (though the word has often a different sense in ordinary conversation), the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons; these three bodies acting together may be aptly described as the “King in Parliament,” and constitute Parliament.
The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, namely, that Parliament thus defined has, under the English constitution, the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.
A law may, for our present purpose, be defined as “any rule which will be enforced by the Courts.” The principle then of Parliamentary sovereignty may, looked at from its positive side, be thus described: Any Act of Parliament, or any part of an Act of Parliament, which makes a new law, or repeals or modifies an existing law, will be obeyed by the Courts. The same principle, looked at from its negative side, may be thus stated: There is no person or body of persons who can, under the English constitution, make rules which override or derogate from an Act of Parliament, or which (to express the same thing in other words) will be enforced by the Courts in contravention of an Act of Parliament. Some apparent exceptions to this rule no doubt suggest themselves. But these apparent exceptions, as where, for example, the Judges of the High Court of Justice make rules of court repealing Parliamentary enactments, are resolvable into cases in which Parliament either directly or indirectly sanctions subordinate legislation. This is not the place for entering into any details as to the nature of judicial legislation; the matter is mentioned here only in order to remove an obvious difficulty which might present itself to some students. It will be necessary in the course of these lectures to say a good deal more about Parliamentary sovereignty, but for the present the above rough description of its nature may suffice. The important thing is to make dear that the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty is, both on its positive and on its negative side, fully recognised by the law of England.
Unlimited Legislative Authority of Parliament
Unlimited legislative authority of parliament. The classical passage on this subject is the following extract from Blackstone's Commentaries:—
Sir Edward Coke, says:
The power and jurisdiction of Parliament is so transcendent and absolute, that it cannot be confined, either for causes or persons, within any bounds. And of this high court, he adds, it may be truly said, “Si antiquitatem spectes, est vetustissima; si dignitatem, est honoratissima; si jurisdictionem, est capacissima.” It hath sovereign and uncontrollable authority in the making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal: this being the place where that absolute despotic power, which must in all governments reside somewhere, is entrusted by the constitution of these kingdoms. All mischiefs and grievances, operations and remedies, that transcend the ordinary course of the laws, are within the reach of this extraordinary tribunal. It can regulate or new-model the succession to the Crown; as was done in the reign of Henry VIII. and William III. It can alter the established religion of the land; as was done in a variety of instances, in the reigns of king Henry VIII. and his three children. It can change and create afresh even the constitution of the kingdom and of parliaments themselves; as was done by the act of union, and the several statutes for triennial and septennial elections. It can, in short, do everything that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call its power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of Parliament. True it is, that what the Parliament doth, no authority upon earth can undo. So that it is a matter most essential to the liberties of this kingdom, that such members be delegated to this important trust, as are most eminent for their probity, their fortitude, and their knowledge; for it was a known apophthegm of the great lord treasurer Burleigh, “that England could never be ruined but by a Parliament”: and, as Sir Matthew Hale observes, this being the highest and greatest court over which none other can have jurisdiction in the kingdom, if by any means a misgovernment should any way fall upon it, the subjects of this kingdom are left without all manner of remedy. To the same purpose the president Montesquieu, though I trust too hastily, presages; that as Rome, Sparta, and Carthage have lost their liberty and perished, so the constitution of England will in time lose its liberty, will perish: it will perish whenever the legislative power shall become more corrupt than the executive.
De Lolme has summed up the matter in a grotesque expression which has become almost proverbial. “It is a fundamental principle with English lawyers, that Parliament can do everything but make a woman a man, and a man a woman.”
illegible This supreme legislative authority of Parliament is shown historically in a large number of instances.
Act of sattlement. The descent of the Crown was varied and finally fixed under the Act of Settlement, 12 & 13 William III., c. 2; the King occupies the throne under a Parliamentary title; his claim to reign depends upon and is the result of a statute. This is a proposition which, at the present day, no one is inclined either to maintain or to dispute; but a glance at the statute-book shows that not much more than two hundred years ago Parliament had to insist strenuously upon the principle of its own lawful supremacy. The first section of 6 Anne, c. 7, enacts (inter alia),
That if any person or persons shall maliciously, advisedly, and directly by writing or printing maintain and affirm that our sovereign lady the Queen that now is, is not the lawful and rightful Queen of these realms, or that the pretended Prince of Wales, who now styles himself King of Great Britain, or King of England, by the name of James the Third, or King of Scotland, by the name of James the Eighth, hath any right or title to the Crown of these realms, or that any other person or persons hath or have any right or title to the same, otherwise than according to an Act of Parliament made in England in the first year of the reign of their late Majesties King William and Queen Mary, of ever blessed and glorious memory, intituled, An Act declaring the rights and liberties of the subject, and settling the succession of the Crown; and one other Act made in England in the twelfth year of the reign of his said late Majesty King William the Third, intituled, An Act for the further limitation of the Crown, and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject; and the Acts lately made in England and Scotland mutually for the union of the two kingdoms; or that the Kings or Queens of this realm, with and by the authority of Parliament, are not able to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to limit and bind the Crown, and the descent, limitation, inheritance, and government thereof; every such person or persons shall be guilty of high treason, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be adjudged traitors, and shall suffer pains of death, and all losses and forfeitures as in cases of high treason.
Acts of Union. The Acts of Union (to one of which Blackstone calls attention) afford a remarkable example of the exertion of Parliamentary authority. But there is no single statute which is more significant either as to the theory or as to the practical working of the constitution than the Septennial Act. The circumstances of its enactment and the nature of the Act itself merit therefore special attention.
illegible In 1716 the duration of Parliament was under an Act of 1694 limited to three years, and a general election could not be deferred beyond 1717. The King and the Ministry were convinced (and with reason) that an appeal to the electors, many of whom were Jacobites, might be perilous not only to the Ministry but to the tranquillity of the state. The Parliament then sitting, therefore, was induced by the Ministry to pass the Septennial Act by which the legal duration of parliament was extended from three to seven years, and the powers of the then existing House of Commons were in effect prolonged for four years beyond the time for which the House was elected. This was a much stronger proceeding than passing say an Act which enabled future Parliaments to continue in existence without the necessity for a general election during seven instead of during three years. The statute was justified by considerations of statesmanship and expediency. This justification of the Septennial Act must seem to every sensible man so ample that it is with some surprise that one reads in writers so fair and judicious as Hallam or Lord Stanhope attempts to minimise the importance of this supreme display of legislative authority. Hallam writes:
Nothing can be more extravagant than what is sometimes confidently pretended by the ignorant, that the legislature exceeded its rights by this enactment; or, if that cannot legally be advanced, that it at least violated the trust of the people, and broke in upon the ancient constitution.
This remark he bases on the ground that
the law for triennial Parliaments was of little more than twenty years' continuance. It was an experiment, which, as was argued, had proved unsuccessful; it was subject, like every other law, to be repealed entirely, or to be modified at discretion.
Lord Stanhope says:
We may.… cast aside the foolish idea that the Parliament overstepped its legitimate authority in prolonging its existence; an idea which was indeed urged by party-spirit at the time, and which may still sometimes pass current in harangues to heated multitudes, but which has been treated with utter contempt by the best constitutional writers.
Constitutional importance of Septennial Act. These remarks miss the real point of the attack on the Septennial portance of Act, and also conceal the constitutional importance of the statute. The Thirty‐one peers who protested against the Bill because (among other grounds)
it is agreed, that the House of Commons must be chosen by the people, and when so chosen, they are truly the representatives of the people, which they cannot be so properly said to be, when continued for a longer time than that for which they were chosen; for after that time they are chosen by the Parliament, and not the people, who are thereby deprived of the only remedy which they have against those, who either do not understand, or through corruption, do wilfully betray the trust reposed in them; which remedy is, to choose better men in their places,
hit exactly the theoretical objection to it. The peculiarity of the Act was not that it changed the legal duration of Parliament or repealed the Triennial Act; the mere passing of a Septennial Act in 1716 was not and would never have been thought to be anything more startling or open to graver censure than the passing of a Triennial Act in 1694. What was startling was that an existing Parliament of its own authority prolonged its own legal existence. Nor can the argument used by Priestley, and in effect by the protesting Peers
that Septennial Parliaments were at first a direct usurpation of the rights of the people; for by the same authority that one Parliament prolonged their own power to seven years, they might have continued it to twice seven, or like the Parliament of 1641 have made it perpetual
be treated as a blunder grounded simply on the “ignorant assumption” that the Septennial Act prolonged the original duration of Parliament. The contention of Priestley and others was in substance that members elected to serve for three years were constitutionally so far at least the delegates or agents of their constituents that they could not, without an inroad on the constitution, extend their own authority beyond the period for which it was conferred upon them by their principals, i.e. the electors. There are countries, and notably the United States, where an Act like the Septennial Act would be held legally invalid; no modem English Parliament would for the sake of keeping a government or party in office venture to pass say a Decennial Act and thus prolong its own duration; the contention therefore that Walpole and his followers in passing the Septennial Act violated the understandings of the constitution has on the face of it nothing absurd. Parliament made a legal though unprecedented use of its powers. To under-rate this exertion of authority is to deprive the Septennial Act of its true constitutional importance. That Act proves to demonstration that in a legal point of view Parliament is neither the agent of the electors nor in any sense a trustee for its constituents. It is legally the sovereign legislative power in the state, and the Septennial Act is at once the result and the standing proof of such Parliamentary sovereignty.
illegible Hitherto we have looked at Parliament as legally omnipotent in regard to public rights. Let us now consider the position of Parliament in regard to those private rights which are in civilised states justly held specially secure or sacred. Coke (it should be noted) particularly chooses interference with private rights as specimens of Parliamentary authority.
Yet some examples are desired. Daughters and heirs apparent of a man or woman, may by Act of Parliament inherit during the life of the ancestor.
It may adjudge an infant, or minor, of full age.
To attaint a man of treason after his death.
To naturalise a mere alien, and make him a subject born. It may bastard a child that by law is legitimate, viz. begotten by an adulterer, the husband being within the four seas.
To legitimate one that is illegitimate, and born before marriage absolutely. And to legitimate secundum quid, but not simpliciter.
Coke is judicious in his choice of instances. Interference with public rights is at bottom a less striking exhibition of absolute power than is the interference with the far more important rights of individuals; a ruler who might think nothing of overthrowing the constitution of his country, would in all probability hesitate a long time before he touched the property or interfered with the contracts of private persons. Parliament, however, habitually interferes, for the public advantage, with private rights. Indeed such interference has now (greatly to the benefit of the community) become so much a matter of course as hardly to excite remark, and few persons reflect what a sign this interference is of the supremacy of Parliament. The statute-book teems with Acts under which Parliament gives privileges or rights to particular persons or imposes particular duties or liabilities upon other persons. This is of course the case with every railway Act, but no one will realise the full action, generally the very beneficial action of Parliamentary sovereignty, who does not look through a volume or two of what are called Local and Private Acts. These Acts are just as much Acts of Parliament as any Statute of the Realm. They deal with every kind of topic, as with railways, harbours, docks, the settlement of private estates, and the like. To these you should add Acts such as those which declare valid marriages which, owing to some mistake of form or otherwise, have not been properly celebrated, and Acts, common enough at one time but now rarely passed, for the divorce of married persons.
One further class of statutes deserve in this connection more notice than they have received—these are Acts of Indemnity.
Acts of Indemnity. An Act of Indemnity is a statute, the object of which is to make legal transactions which when they took place were illegal, or to free individuals to whom the statute applies from liability for having broken the law; enactments of this kind were annually passed with almost unbroken regularity for more than a century (1727–1828) to free Dissenters from penalties, for having accepted municipal offices without duly qualifying themselves by taking the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. To the subject of Acts of Indemnity, however, we shall return in a later chapter. The point to be now noted is that such enactments being as it were the legalisation of illegality are the highest exertion and crowning proof of sovereign power.
So far of the sovereignty of Parliament from its positive side: let us now look at the same doctrine from its negative aspect.
The Absence of Any Competing Legislative Power
illegible The King, each House of Parliament, the Constituencies, and the Law Courts, either have at one time claimed, or might appear to claim, independent legislative power. It will be found, however, on examination that the claim can in none of these cases be made good.
illegible The King Legislative authority originally resided in the King in Council, and even after the commencement of Parliamentary legislation there existed side by side with it a system of royal legislation under the form of Ordinances, and (at a later period) of Proclamations.
illegible These had much the force of law, and in the year 1539 the Act 31 Henry VIII., c. 8, formally empowered the Crown to legislate by means of proclamations. This statute is so short and so noteworthy that it may well be quoted in extenso.
The King for the time being, with the advice of his Council, or the more part of them, may set forth proclamations under such penalities and pains as to him and them shall seem necessary, which shall be observed as though they were made by Act of Parliament; but this shall not be prejudicial to any person's inheritance, offices, liberties, goods, chattels, or life; and whosoever shall willingly offend any article contained in the said proclamations, shall pay such forfeitures, or be so long imprisoned, as shall be expressed in the said proclamaions; and if any offending will depart the realm, to the intent he will not answer his said offence, he shall be adjudged a traitor.
This enactment marks the highest point of legal authority ever reached by the Crown, and, probably because of its inconsistency with the whole tenor of English law, was repealed in the reign of Edward the Sixth. It is curious to notice how revolutionary would have been the results of the statute had it remained in force. It must have been followed by two consequences. An English king would have become nearly as despotic as a French monarch. The statute would further have established a distinction between “laws” properly so called as being made by the legislature and “ordinances” having the force of law, though not in strictness laws as being rather decrees of the executive power than Acts of the legislature. This distinction exists in one form or another in most continental states, and is not without great practical utility. In foreign countries the legislature generally confines itself to laying down general principles of legislation, and leaves them with great advantage to the public to be supplemented by decrees or regulations which are the work of the executive. The cumbersomeness and prolixity of English statute law is due in no small measure to futile endeavours of Parliament to work out the details of large legislative changes. This evil has become so apparent that in modern times Acts of Parliament constantly contain provisions empowering the Privy Council, the judges, or some other body, to make rules under the Act for the determination of details which cannot be settled by Parliament. But this is only an awkward mitigation of an acknowledged evil, and the substance no less than the form of the law would, it is probable, be a good deal improved if the executive government of England could, like that of France, by means of decrees, ordinances, or proclamations having the force of law, work out the detailed application of the general principles embodied in the Acts of the legislature. In this, as in some other instances, restrictions wisely placed by our forefathers on the growth of royal power, are at the present day the cause of unnecessary restraints on the action of the executive government. For the repeal of 31 Henry VIII., c. 8, rendered governmental legislation, with all its defects and merits, impossible, and left to prodamations only such weight as they might possess at common law. The exact extent of this authority was indeed for some time doubtful. In 1610, however, a solemn opinion or protest of the judges established the modem doctrine that royal proclamations have in no sense the force of law; they serve to call the attention of the public to the law, but they cannot of themselves impose upon any man any legal obligation or duty not imposed by common law or by Act of Parliament. In 1766 Lord Chatham attempted to prohibit by force of proclamation the exportation of wheat, and the Act of Indemnity (7 George II., c. 7), passed in consequence of this attempt, may be considered the final legislative disposal of any claim on the part of the Crown to make law by force of proclamation.
The main instances where, in modem times, proclamations or orders in council are of any effect are cases either where, at common law, a proclamation is the regular mode, not of legislation, but of announcing the executive will of the King, as when Parliament is summoned by proclamation, or else where orders in council have authority given to them by Act of Parliament.
House of ParliamentResolutions of Either House of Parliament The House of Commons, at any rate, has from time to time appeared to claim for resolutions of the House, something like legal authority. That this pretension cannot be supported is certain, but there exists some difficulty in defining with precision the exact effect which the Courts concede to a resolution of either House.
Two points are, however, well established.
Resolution of either HouseFirst, the resolution of neither House is a law.
This is the substantial result of the case of Stockdale v. Hansard. The gist of the decision in that case is that a libellous document did not cease to be a libel because it was published by the order of the House of Commons, or because the House subsequently resolved that the power of publishing the report which contained it, was an essential incident to the constitutional functions of Parliament.
Secondly, each House of Parliament has complete control over its own proceedings, and also has the right to protect itself by committing for contempt any person who commits any injury against, or offers any affront to the House, and no Court of law will inquire into the mode in which either House exercises the powers which it by law possesses.
The practical difficulty lies in the reconciliation of the first with the second of these propositions, and is best met by following out the analogy suggested by Mr. Justice Stephen, between a resolution of the House of Commons, and the decision of a Court from which there is no appeal.
I do not say that the resolution of the House is the judgment of a Court not subject to our revision; but it has much in common with such a judgment. The House of Commons is not a Court of Justice; but the effect of its privilege to regulate its own internal concerns, practically invests it with a judicial character when it has to apply to particular cases the provisions of Acts of Parliament. We must presume that it discharges this function properly, and with due regard to the laws, in the making of which it has so great a share. If its determination is not in accordance with law, this resembles the case of an error by a judge whose decision is not subject to appeal. There is nothing startling in the recognition of the fact that such an error is possible. If, for instance, a jury in a criminal case give a perverse verdict, the law has provided no remedy. The maxim that there is no wrong without a remedy, does not mean, as it is sometimes supposed, that there is a legal remedy for every moral or political wrong. If this were its meaning, it would be manifestly untrue. There is no legal remedy for the breach of a solemn promise not under seal, and made without consideration; nor for many kinds of verbal slander, though each may involve utter ruin; nor for oppressive legislation, though it may reduce men practically to slavery; nor for the worst damage to person and property inflicted by the most unjust and cruel war. The maxim means only that legal wrong and legal remedy are correlative terms; and it would be more intelligibly and correctly stated, if it were reversed, so as to stand, “Where there is no legal remedy, there is no legal wrong.”
illegible The law therefore stands thus. Either House of Parliament has the fullest power over its own proceedings, and can, like a Court, commit for contempt any person who, in the judgment of the House, is guilty of insult or affront to the House. The Case of the Sheriff of Middlesex carries this right to the very farthest point. The Sheriff was imprisoned for contempt under a warrant issued by the Speaker. Every one knew that the alleged contempt was nothing else than obedience by the Sheriff to the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench in the case of Stockdale v. Hansard, and that the Sheriff was imprisoned by the House because under such judgment he took the goods of the defendant Hansard in execution. Yet when the Sheriff was brought by Habeas Corpus before the Queen's Bench the Judges held that they could not inquire what were the contempts for which the Sheriff was committed by the House. The Courts, in other words, do not claim any right to protect their own officials from being imprisoned by the House of Commons for alleged contempt of the House, even though the so-called contempt is nothing else than an act of obedience to the Courts. A declaration or resolution of either House, on the other hand, is not in any sense a law. Suppose that X were by order of the House of Commons to assault A out of the House, irrespective of any act done in the House, and not under a warrant committing A for contempt; or suppose that X were to commit some offence by which he incurred a fine under some Act of Parliament, and that such fine were recoverable by A as a common informer. No resolution of the House of Commons ordering or approving of X's act could be pleaded by X as a legal defence to proceedings, either civil or criminal, against him. If proof of this were wanted it would be afforded by the Act 3 & 4 Vict. c. 9. The object of this Act, passed in consequence of the controversy connected with the case of Stockdale v. Hansard, is to give summary protection to persons employed in the publication of Parliamentary papers, which are, it should be noted, papers published by the order of one or other of the Houses of Parliament. The necessity for such an Act is the clearest proof that an order of the House is not of itself a legal defence for the publication of matters which would otherwise be libellous. The House of Commons
by invoking the authority of the whole Legislature to give validity to the plea they had vainly set up in the action [of Stockdale v. Hansard], and by not appealing against the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench, had, in effect, admitted the correctness of that judgment and affirmed the great principle on which it was founded, viz. that no single branch of the Legislature can, by an assertion of its alleged privileges, alter, suspend, or supersede any known law of the land, or bar the resort of any Englishman to any remedy, or his exercise and enjoyment of any right, by that law established.
illegibleThe Vote of the Parliamentary Electors Expressions are constantly used in the course of political discussions which imply that the body of persons entitled to choose members of Parliament possess under the English constitution some kind of legislative authority. Such language is, as we shall see, not without a real meaning; it points to the important consideration that the wishes of the constituencies influence the action of Parliament. But any expressions which attribute to Parliamentary electors a legal part in the process of law-making are quite inconsistent with the view taken by the law of the position of an elector. The sole legal right of electors under the English constitution is to elect members of Parliament. Electors have no legal means of initiating, of sanctioning, or of repealing the legislation of Parliament. No Court will consider for a moment the argument that a law is invalid as being opposed to the opinion of the electorate; their opinion can be legally expressed through Parliament, and through Parliament alone. This is not a necessary incident of representative government. In Switzerland no change can be introduced in the constitution which has not been submitted for approval or disapproval to all male citizens who have attained their majority; and even an ordinary law which does not involve a change in the constitution may, after it has been passed by the Federal Assembly, be submitted on the demand of a certain number of citizens to a popular vote, and is annulled if a vote is not obtained in its favour,
The courtsThe Law Courts A large proportion of English law is in reality made by the judges, and whoever wishes to understand the nature and the extent of judicial legislation in England, should read Pollock's admirable essay on the Science of Case Law. The topic is too wide a one to be considered at any length in these lectures. All that we need note is that the adhesion by our judges to precedent, that is, their habit of deciding one case in accordance with the principle, or supposed principle, which governed a former case, leads inevitably to the gradual formation by the Courts of fixed rules for decision, which are in effect laws. This judicial legislation might appear, at first sight, inconsistent with the supremacy of Parliament. But this is not so. English judges do not claim or exercise any power to repeal a Statute, whilst Acts of Parliament may override and constantly do override the law of the judges. Judicial legislation is, in short, subordinate legislation, carried on with the assent and subject to the supervision of Parliament.
ALLEGED LEGAL LIMITATIONS ON THE LEGISLATIVE
SOVEREIGNTY OF PARLIAMENT
Alleged limitations. All that can be urged as to the speculative difficulties of placing any limits whatever on sovereignty has been admirably stated by Austin and by Professor Holland. With these difficulties we have, at this moment, no concern. Nor is it necessary to examine whether it be or be not true, that there must necessarily be found in every state some person, or combination of persons, which, according to the constitution, whatever be its form, can legally change every law, and therefore constitutes the legally supreme power in the state. Our whole business is now to carry a step further the proof that, under the English constitution, Parliament does constitute such a supreme legislative authority or sovereign power as, according to Austin and other jurists, must exist in every civilised state, and for that purpose to examine into the validity of the various suggestions, which have from time to time been made, as to the possible limitations on Parliamentary authority, and to show that none of them are countenanced by English law.
The suggested limitations are three in number.
Moral law.First, Acts of Parliament, it has been asserted, are invalid if they are opposed to the principles of morality or to the doctrines of international law. Parliament, it is in effect asserted, cannot make a law opposed to the dictates of private or public morality. Thus Blackstone lays down in so many words that the
law of nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity ff contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original;
and expressions are sometimes used by modern judges which imply that the Courts might refuse to enforce statutes going beyond the proper limits (internationally speaking) of Parliamentary authority. But to words such as those of Blackstone, and to the obiter dicta of the Bench, we must give a very qualified interpretation. There is no legal basis for the theory that judges, as exponents of morality, may overrule Acts of Parliament. Language which might seem to imply this amounts in reality to nothing more than the assertion that the judges, when attempting to ascertain what is the meaning to be affixed to an Act of Parliament, will presume that Parliament did not intend to violate the ordinary rules of morality, or the principles of international law, and will therefore, whenever possible, give such an interpretation to a statutory enactment as may be consistent with the doctrines both of private and of international morality. A modem judge would never listen to a barrister who argued that an Act of Parliament was invalid because it was immoral, or because it went beyond the limits of Parliamentary authority. The plain truth is that our tribunals uniformly act on the principle that a law alleged to be a bad law is ex hypothesi a law, and therefore entitled to obedience by the Courts.
PrerogativeSecondly, doctrines have at times been maintained which went very near to denying the right of Parliament to touch the Prerogative.
In the time of the Stuarts the doctrine was maintained, not only by the King, but by lawyers and statesmen who, like Bacon, favoured the increase of royal authority, that the Crown possessed under the name of the “prerogative” a reserve, so to speak, of wide and indefinite rights and powers, and that this prerogative or residue of sovereign power was superior to the ordinary law of the land. This doctrine combined with the deduction from it that the Crown could suspend the operation of statutes, or at any rate grant dispensation from obedience to them, certainly suggested the notion that the high powers of the prerogative were to a certain extent beyond the reach of Parliamentary enactment. We need not, however, now enter into the political controversies of another age. All that need be noticed is that though certain powers—as, for example, the right of making treaties—are now left by law in the hands of the Crown, and are exercised in fact by the executive government, no modem lawyer would maintain that these powers or any other branch of royal authority could not be regulated or abolished by Act of Parliament, or, what is the same thing, that the judges might legally treat as invalid a statute, say, regulating the mode in which treaties are to be made, or making the assent or the Houses of Parliament necessary to the validity of a treaty.
illegibleThirdly, language has occasionally been used in Acts of Parliament which implies that one Parliament can make laws which cannot be touched by any subsequent Parliament, and that therefore the legislative authority of an existing Parliament may be limited by the enactments of its predecessors.
The Act of Union. That Parliaments have more than once intended and endeavoured to pass Acts which should tie the hands of their successors is certain, but the endeavour has always ended in failure. Of statutes intended to arrest the possible course of future legislation, the most noteworthy are the Acts which embody the treaties of Union with Scotland and Ireland. The legislators who passed these Acts assuredly intended to give to certain portions of them more than the ordinary effect of statutes. Yet the history of legislation in respect of these very Acts affords the strongest proof of the futility inherent in every attempt of one sovereign legislature to restrain the action of another equally sovereign body. Thus the Act of Union with Scotland enacts in effect that every professor of a Scotch University shall acknowledge and profess and subscribe the Confession of Faith as his profession of faith, and in substance enacts that this provision shall be a fundamental and essential condition of the treaty of union in all time coming. But this very provision has been in its main part repealed by the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1853, which relieves most professors in the Scotch universities from the necessity of subscribing the Confession of Faith. Nor is this by any means the only inroad made upon the terms of the Act of Union; from one point of view at any rate the Act 10 Anne, c. 12, restoring the exercise of lay patronage, was a direct infringement upon the Treaty of Union. The intended unchangeableness, and the real liability of these Acts or treaties to be changed by Parliament, comes out even more strikingly in the history of the Act of Union with Ireland. The fifth Article of that Act runs as follows:
That it be the fifth article of Union, that the Churches of England and Ireland as now by law established, be united into one Protestant episcopal Church, to be called the United Church of England and Ireland; and that the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the said United Church shall be and shall remain in full force for ever, as the same are now by law established for the Church of England; and that the continuance and preservation of the said United Church, as the established Church of England and Ireland, shall be deemed and be taken to be an essential and fundamental part of the Union.
That the statesmen who drew and passed this Article meant to bind the action of future Parliaments is apparent from its language. That the attempt has failed of success is apparent to every one who knows the contents of the Irish Church Act, 1869.
Act limiting right of Parliament to tax colonies. One Act, indeed, of the British Parliament might, looked at in the light of history, claim a peculiar sanctity. It is certainly an enactment of which the terms, we may safely predict, will never be repealed and the spirit will never be violated. This Act is the Taxation of Colonies Act, 1778. It provides that Parliament
will not impose any duty, tax, or assessment whatever, payable in any of his Majesty's colonies, provinces, and plantations in North America or the West Indies; except only such duties as it may be expedient to impose for the regulation of commerce; the net produce of such duties to be always paid and applied to and for the use of the colony, province, or plantation, in which the same shall be respectively levied, in such manner as other duties collected by the authority of the respective general courts, or general assemblies, of such colonies, provinces, or plantations, are ordinarily paid and applied.
This language becomes the more impressive when contrasted with the American Colonies Act, 1776, which, being passed in that year to repeal the Acts imposing the Stamp Duties, carefully avoids any surrender of Parliament's right to tax the colonies. There is no need to dwell on the course of events of which these two Acts are a statutory record. The point calling for attention is that though policy and prudence condemn the repeal of the Taxation of Colonies Act, 1778, or the enactment of any law inconsistent with its spirit, there is under our constitution no legal difficulty in the way of repealing or overriding this Act. If Parliament were tomorrow to impose a tax, say on New Zealand or on the Canadian Dominion, the statute imposing it would be a legally valid enactment. As stated in short by a very judicious writer—
It is certain that a Parliament cannot so bind its successors by the terms of any statute, as to limit the discretion of a future Parliament, and thereby disable the Legislature from entire freedom of action at any future time when it might be needful to invoke the interposition of Parliament to legislate for the public welfare.
Parliamentary sovereignty is therefore an undoubted legal fact.
It is complete both on its positive and on its negative side. Parliament can legally legislate on any topic whatever which, in the judgment of Parliament, is a fit subject for legislation. There is no power which, under the English constitution, can come into rivalry with the legislative sovereignty of Parliament.
No one of the limitations alleged to be imposed by law on the absolute authority of Parliament has any real existence, or receives any countenance, either from the statute-book or from the practice of the Courts.
This doctrine of the legislative supremacy of Parliament is the very keystone of the law of the constitution. But it is, we must admit, a dogma which does not always find ready acceptance, and it is well worth while to note and examine the difficulties which impede the admission of its truth.
DIFFICULTIES AS TO THE DOCTRINE
OF PARLIAMENTARY SOVEREIGNTY
Difficulties as to Parliamentary sovereignty. The reasons why many persons find it hard to accept the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty are twofold.
The dogma sounds like a mere application to the British constitution of Austin's theory of sovereignty, and yet intelligent students of Austin must have noticed that Austin's own conclusion as to the persons invested with sovereign power under the British constitution does not agree with the view put forward, on the authority of English lawyers, in these lectures. For while lawyers maintain that sovereignty resides in “Parliament,” i.e. in the body constituted by the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, Austin holds that the sovereign power is vested in the King, the House of Lords, and the Commons or the electors.
Difficulty from actual limitation on power of parliament. Every one, again, knows as a matter of common sense that, whatever lawyers may say, the sovereign power of Parliament is not unlimited, and that King, Lords, and Commons united do not possess anything like that “restricted omnipotence”—if the term may be excused—which is the utmost authority ascribable to any human institution. There are many enactments, and these laws not in themselves obviously unwise or tyrannical, which Parliament never would and (to speak plainly) never could pass. If the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty involves the attribution of unrestricted power to Parliament, the dogma is no better than a legal fiction, and certainly is not worth the stress here laid upon it.
Both these difficulties are real and reasonable difficulties. They are, it will be found, to a certain extent connected together, and well repay careful consideration.
Criticism of Austin's theory As to Austin's theory of sovereignty in relation to the British constitution, sovereignty, like many of Austin's conceptions, is a generalisation drawn in the main from English law, just as the ideas of the economists of Austin's generation are (to a great extent) generalisations suggested by the circumstances of English commerce. In England we are accustomed to the existence of a supreme legislative body, i.e. a body which can make or unmake every law; and which, therefore, cannot be bound by any law. This is, from a legal point of view, the true conception of a sovereign, and the ease with which the theory of absolute sovereignty has been accepted by English jurists is due to the peculiar history of English constitutional law. So far, therefore, from its being true that the sovereignty of Parliament is a deduction from abstract theories of jurisprudence, a critic would come nearer the truth who asserted that Austin's theory of sovereignty is suggested by the position of the English Parliament, just as Austin's analysis of the term “law” is at Bottom an analysis of a typical law, namely, an English criminal statute.
It should, however, be carefully noted that the term “sovereignty,” as long as it is accurately employed in the sense in which Austin sometimes uses it, is a merely legal conception, and means simply the power of law-making unrestricted by any legal limit. If the term “sovereignty” be thus used, the sovereign power under the English constitution is dearly “Parliament.” But the word “sovereignty” is sometimes employed in a political rather than in a strictly legal sense. That body is “politically” sovereign or supreme in a state the will of which is ultimately obeyed by the citizens of the state. In this sense of the word the electors of Great Britain may be said to be, together with the Crown and the Lords, or perhaps, in strict accuracy, independently of the King and the Peers, the body in which sovereign power is vested. For, as things now stand, the will of the electorate, and certainly of the electorate in combination with the Lords and the Crown, is sure ultimately to prevail on all subjects to be determined by the British government. The matter indeed may be carried a little further, and we may assert that the arrangements of the constitution are now such as to ensure that the will of the electors shall by regular and constitutional means always in the end assert itself as the predominant influence in the country. But this is a political, not a legal fact. The electors can in the long run always enforce their will. But the Courts will take no notice of the will of the electors. The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament, and would never suffer the validity of a statute to be questioned on the ground of its having been passed or being kept alive in opposition to the wishes of the electors. The political sense of the word “sovereignty” is, it is true, fully as important as the legal sense or more so. But the two significations, though intimately connected together, are essentially different, and in some part of his work Austin has apparently confused the one sense with the other. He writes:
Adopting the language of some of the writers who have treated of the British constitution, I commonly suppose that the present parliament, or the parliament for the time being, is possessed of the sovereignty: or I commonly suppose that the King and the Lords, with the members of the Commons' house, form a tripartite body which is sovereign or supreme. But, speaking accurately, the members of the Commons' house are merely trustees for the body by which they are elected and appointed: and, consequently, the sovereignty always resides in the King and the Peers, with the electoral body of the Commons. That a trust is imposed by the party delegating, and that the party representing engages to discharge the trust, seems to be imported by the correlative expressions delegation and representation. It were absurd to suppose that the delegating empowers the representative party to defeat or abandon any of the purposes for which the latter is appointed: to suppose, for example, that the Commons empower their representatives in parliament to relinquish their share in the sovereignty to the King and the Lords.
Austin owns that the doctrine here laid down by him is inconsistent with the language used by writers who have treated of the British constitution. It is further absolutely inconsistent with the validity of the Septennial Act. Nothing is more certain than that no English judge ever conceded, or, under the present constitution, can concede, that Parliament is in any legal sense a “trustee” for the electors. Of such a feigned “trust” the Courts know nothing. The plain truth is that as a matter of law Parliament is the sovereign power in the state, and that the “supposition” treated by Austin as inaccurate is the correct statement of a legal fact which forms the basis of our whole legislative and judicial system. It is, however, equally true that in a political sense the electors are the most important part of, we may even say are actually, the sovereign power, since their will is under the present constitution sure to obtain ultimate obedience. The language therefore of Austin is as correct in regard to “political” sovereignty as it is erroneous in regard to what we may term “legal” sovereignty. The electors are a part of and the predominant part of the politically sovereign power. But the legally sovereign power is assuredly, as maintained by all the best writers on the constitution, nothing but Parliament.
It may be conjectured that the error of which (from a lawyer's point of view) Austin has been guilty arises from his feeling, as every person must feel who is not the slave to mere words, that Parliament is.
Existence of actual limitations to power not inconsistent with Sovereignty. As to the actual limitations on the sovereign power of Parliament, the actual exercise of authority by any sovereign whatever, and notably by Parliament, is bounded or controlled by two limitations. Of these the one is an external, the other is an internal limitation.
External limit The external limit to the real power of a sovereign consists in the possibility or certainty that his subjects, or a large number of them, will disobey or resist his laws.
This limitation exists even under the most despotic monarchies. A Roman Emperor, or a French King during the middle of the eighteenth century, was (as is the Russian Czar at the present day) in strictness a “sovereign” in the legal sense of that term. He had absolute legislative authority. Any law made by him was binding, and there was no power in the empire or kingdom which could annul such law. It may also be true,—though here we are passing from the legal to the political sense of sovereignty,—that the will of an absolute monarch is in general obeyed by the bulk of his subjects. But it would be an error to suppose that the most absolute ruler who ever existed could in reality make or change every law at his pleasure. That this must be so results from considerations which were long ago pointed out by Hume. Force, he teaches, is in one sense always on the side of the governed, and government therefore in a sense always depends upon opinion. He writes:
Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The Soldan of Egypt, or the Emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion,
illegible The authority, that is to say, even of a despot, depends upon the readiness of his subjects or of some portion of his subjects to obey his behests; and this readiness to obey must always be in reality limited. This is shown by the most notorious facts of history. None of the early Cæsars could at their pleasure have subverted the worship or fundamental institutions of the Roman world, and when Constantine carried through a religious revolution his success was due to the sympathy of a large part of his subjects. The Sultan could not abolish Mahommedanism. Louis the Fourteenth at the height of his power could revoke the Edict of Nantes, but he would have found it impossible to establish the supremacy of Protestantism, and for the same reason which prevented James the Second from establishing the supremacy of Roman Catholicism. The one king was in the strict sense despotic; the other was as powerful as any English monarch. But the might of each was limited by the certainty of popular disobedience or opposition. The unwillingness of subjects to obey may have reference not only to great changes, but even to small matters. The French National Assembly of 1871 was emphatically the sovereign power in France. The majority of its members were (it is said) prepared for a monarchical restoration, but they were not prepared to restore the white flag: the army which would have acquiesced in the return of the Bourbons, would not (it was anticipated) tolerate the sight of an anti-revolutionary symbol: “the chassepots would go off of themselves.” Here we see the precise limit to the exercise of legal sovereignty; and what is true of the power of a despot or of the authority of a constituent assembly is specially true of the sovereignty of Parliament; it is limited on every side by the possibility of popular resistance. Parliament might legally establish an Episcopal Church in Scotland; Parliament might legally tax the Colonies; Parliament might without any breach of law change the succession to the throne or abolish the monarchy; but every one knows that in the present state of the world the British Parliament will do none of these things. In each case widespread resistance would result from legislation which, though legally valid, is in fact beyond the stretch of Parliamentary power. Nay, more than this, there are things which Parliament has done in other times, and done successfully, which a modern Parliament would not venture to repeat. Parliament would not at the present day prolong by law the duration of an existing House of Commons. Parliament would not without great hesitation deprive of their votes large dasses of Parliamentary electors; and, speaking generally, Parliament would not embark on a course of reactionary legislation; persons who honestly blame Catholic Emancipation and lament the disestablishment of the Irish Church do not dream that Parliament could repeal the statutes of 1829 or of 1869. These examples from among a score are enough to show the extent to which the theoretically boundless sovereignty of Parliament is curtailed by the external limit to its exercise.
internal limit illustrations The internal limit to the exercise of sovereignty arises from the nature of the sovereign power itself. Even a despot exercises his powers in accordance with his character, which is itself moulded by the circumstances under which he lives, including under that head the moral feelings of the time and the society to which he belongs. The Sultan could not if he would change the religion of the Mahom-medan world, but if he could do so it is in the very highest degree improbable that the head of Mahommedanism should wish to overthrow the religion of Mahomet; the internal check on the exercise of the Sultan's power is at least as strong as the external limitation. People sometimes ask the idle question why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope, and that the man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist. Louis the Fourteenth could not in all probability have established Protestantism as the national religion of France; but to imagine Louis the Fourteenth as wishing to carry out a Protestant reformation is nothing short of imagining him to have been a being quite unlike the Grand Monarque. Here again the internal check works together with the external check, and the influence of the internal limitation is as great in the case of a Parliamentary sovereign as of any other; perhaps it is greater. Parliament could not prudently tax the Colonies; but it is hardly conceivable that a modern Parliament, with the history of the eighteenth century before its eyes, should wish to tax the Colonies. The combined influence both of the external and of the internal limitation on legislative sovereignty is admirably stated in Leslie Stephen's Science of Ethics, whose chapter on “Law and Custom” contains one of the best statements to be met with of the limits placed by the nature of things on the theoretical omnipotence of sovereign legislatures.
Lawyers are apt to speak as though the legislature were omnipotent, as they do not require to go beyond its decisions. It is, of course, omnipotent in the sense that it can make whatever laws it pleases, inasmuch as a law means any rule which has been made by the legislature. But from the scientific point of view, the power of the legislature is of course strictly limited. It is limited, so to speak, both from within and from without; from within, because the legislature is the product of a certain social condition, and determined by whatever determines the society; and from without, because the power of imposing laws is dependent upon the instinct of subordination, which is itself limited. If a legislature decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal; but legislators must go mad before they could pass such a law, and subjects be idiotic before they could submit to it.
illegible Though sovereign power is bounded by an external and an internal limit, neither boundary is very definitely marked, nor need the two precisely coincide. A sovereign may wish to do many things which he either cannot do at all or can do only at great risk of serious resistance, and it is on many accounts worth observation that the exact point at which the external limitation begins to operate, that is, the point at which subjects will offer serious or insuperable resistance to the commands of a ruler whom they generally obey, is never fixed with precision. It would be rash of the Imperial Parliament to abolish the Scotch law Courts, and assimilate the law of Scotland to that of England. But no one can feel sure at what point Scotch resistance to such a change would become serious. Before the War of Secession the sovereign power of the United States could not have abolished slavery without provoking a civil war; after the War of Secession the sovereign power abolished slavery and conferred the electoral franchise upon the Blacks without exciting actual resistance.
Representative government produces coincidence between external and internal limit In reference to the relation between the external and the internal limit to sovereignty, representative government presents a noteworthy peculiarity. It is this. The aim and effect of such government is to produce a coincidence, or at any rate diminish the divergence, between the external and the internal limitations on the exercise of sovereign power. Frederick the Great may have wished to introduce, and may in fact have introduced, changes or reforms opposed to the wishes of his subjects. Louis Napoleon certainly began a policy of free trade which would not be tolerated by an assembly which truly represented French opinion. In these instances neither monarch reached the external limit to his sovereign power, but it might very well have happened that he might have reached it, and have thereby provoked serious resistance on the part of his subjects. There might, in short, have arisen a divergence between the internal and the external check. The existence of such a divergence, or (in other words) of a difference between the permanent wishes of the sovereign, or rather of the King who then constituted a predominant part of the sovereign power, and the permanent wishes of the nation, is traceable in England throughout the whole period beginning with the accession of James the First and ending with the Revolution of 1688. The remedy for this divergence was found in a transference of power from the Crown to the Houses of Parliament; and in placing on the throne rulers who from their position were induced to make their wishes coincide with the will of the nation expressed through the House of Commons; the difference between the will of the sovereign and the will of the nation was terminated by the foundation of a system of real representative government. Where a Parliament truly represents the people, the divergence between the external and the internal limit to the exercise of sovereign power can hardly arise, or if it arises, must soon disappear. Speaking roughly, the permanent wishes of the representative portion of Parliament can hardly in the long run differ from the wishes of the English people, or at any rate of the electors; that which the majority of the House of Commons command, the majority of the English people usually desire. To prevent the divergence between the wishes of the sovereign and the wishes of subjects is in short the effect, and the only certain effect, of bonâ fide representative government. For our present purpose there is no need to determine whether this result be good or bad. An enlightened sovereign has more than once carried out reforms in advance of the wishes of his subjects. This is true both of sovereign kings and, though more rarely, of sovereign Parliaments. But the sovereign who has done this, whether King or Parliament, does not in reality represent his subjects. All that it is here necessary to insist upon is that the essential property of representative government is to produce coincidence between the wishes of the sovereign and the wishes of the subjects; to make, in short, the two limitations on the exercise of sovereignty absolutely coincident. This, which is true in its measure of all real representative government, applies with special truth to the English House of Commons.
The House of Commons was supposed originally to be no part of the standing government of this country. It was considered as a control, issuing immediately from the people, and speedily to be resolved into the mass from whence it arose. In this respect it was in the higher part of government what juries are in the lower. The capacity of a magistrate being transitory, and that of a citizen permanent, the latter capacity it was hoped would of course preponderate in all discussions, not only between the people and the standing authority of the Crown, but between the people and the fleeting authority of the House of Commons itself. It was hoped that, being of a middle nature between subject and government, they would feel with a more tender and a nearer interest everything that concerned the people, than the other remoter and more permanent parts of legislature.
Whatever alterations time and the necessary accommodation of business may have introduced, this character can never be sustained, unless the House of Commons shall be made to bear some stamp of the actual disposition of the people at large. It would (among public misfortunes) be an evil more natural and tolerable, that the House of Commons should be infected with every epidemical phrensy of the people, as this would indicate some consanguinity, some sympathy of nature with their constitutents, than that they should in all cases be wholly untouched by the opinions and feelings of the people out of doors. By this want of sympathy they would cease to be a House of Commons.
Either House of Parliament may commit for contempt, and the Courts will not go behind the committal and inquire into the facts constituting the alleged contempt. Hence either House may commit to prison for contempt any person whom the House think guilty of contempt.
The House of Lords have power to commit an offender to prison for a specified term, even beyond the duration of the session (May, Parliamentary Practice (11th ed.), pp. 91, 92). But the House of Commons do not commit for a definite period, and prisoners committed by the House are, if not sooner discharged, released from their confinement on a prorogation. If they were held longer in custody they would be discharged by the Courts upon a writ of Habeas Corpus (May, Parliamentary Practice, chap. iii.).
libel upon either House of Parliament or upon a member thereof, in his character of a member, has been often treated as a contempt. (ibid.)
The Houses and all the members thereof have all the privileges as to freedom of speech, etc., necessary for the performance of their duties. (See generally May's Parliamentary Practice, chap. iii.) Compare as to Parliamentary privilege Shaftesbury's Case, 6 St. Tr. 1269; Flower's Case, 8 T. R. 314; Ashby v. White, 1 Sm. L. Cas. (9th ed.), 268; Wilkes's Case, 19 St. Tr. 1153; Burdett v. Colman, 14 East, 163; Rex v. Creevy, 1M. & S. 273; Clarke v. Bradlaugh, 7 Q. B, D. 38, 8. App. Cas. 354; The Attorney-General v. Bradlaugh, 14 Q. B. D. 667.