PARLIAMENT AND NON-SOVEREIGN
Aim of chapter.In my last chapter I dwelt upon the nature of Parliamentary sovereignty; my object in this chapter is to illustrate the characteristics of such sovereignty by comparing the essential features of a sovereign Parliament like that of England with the traits which mark non-sovereign law-making bodies.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SOVEREIGN PARLIAMENT
Parliamentary sovereignty The characteristics of Parliamentary sovereignty may be deduced, from the term itself. But these traits are apt to escape the attention of Englishmen, who have been so accustomed to live under the rule of a supreme legislature, that they almost, without knowing it, assume that all legislative bodies are supreme, and hardly therefore keep clear before their minds the properties of a supreme as contrasted with a non-sovereign law-making body. In this matter foreign observers are, as is natural, clearer-sighted than Englishmen. De Lolme, Gneist, and Tocqueville seize at once upon the sovereignty of Parliament as a salient feature of the English constitution, and recognise the far-reaching effects of this marked peculiarity in our institutions.
In England, the Parliament has an acknowledged right to modify the constitution; as, therefore, the constitution may undergo perpetual changes, it does not in reality exist; the Parliament is at once a legislative and a constituent assembly.
His expressions are wanting in accuracy, and might provoke some criticism, but the description of the English Parliament as at once “a legislative and a constituent assembly” supplies a convenient formula for summing up the fact that Parliament can change any law whatever. Being a “legislative” assembly it can make ordinary laws, being a “constituent” assembly it can make laws which shift the basis of the constitution. The results which ensue from this fact may be brought under three heads.
illegibleFirst, there is no law which Parliament cannot change, or (to put the same thing somewhat differently), fundamental or so-called constitutional laws are under our constitution changed by the same body and in the same manner as other laws, namely, by Parliament acting in its ordinary legislative character.
A Bill for reforming the House of Commons, a Bill for abolishing the House of Lords, a Bill to give London a municipality, a Bill to make valid marriages celebrated by a pretended clergyman, who is found after their celebration not to be in orders, are each equally within the competence of Parliament, they each may be passed in substantially the same manner, they none of them when passed will be, legally speaking, a whit more sacred or immutable than the others, for they each will be neither more nor less than an Act of Parliament, which can be repealed as it has been passed by Parliament, and cannot be annulled by any other power.
illegibleSecondly, there is under the English constitution no marked or clear distinction between laws which are not fundamental or constitutional and laws which are fundamental or constitutional. The very language therefore, expressing the difference between a “legislative” assembly which can change ordinary laws and a “constituent” assembly which can change not only ordinary but also constitutional and fundamental laws, has to be borrowed from the political phraseology of foreign countries.
This absence of any distinction between constitutional and ordinary laws has a close connection with the non-existence in England of any written or enacted constitutional statute or charter. Tocqueville indeed, in common with other writers, apparently holds the unwritten character of the British constitution to be of its essence: “L'Angleterre n'ayant point de constitutionécrite, qui peut dire qu'on change sa constitution?” But here Tocqueville falls into an error, characteristic both of his nation and of the weaker side of his own rare genius. He has treated the form of the constitution as the cause of its substantial qualities, and has inverted the relation of cause and effect. The constitution, he seems to have thought, was changeable because it was not reduced to a written or statutory form. It is far nearer the truth to assert that the constitution has never been reduced to a written or statutory form because each and every part of it is changeable at the will of Parliament. When a country is governed under a constitution which is intended either to be unchangeable or at any rate to be changeable only with special difficulty, the constitution, which is nothing else than the laws which are intended to have a character of permanence or immutability, is necessarily expressed in writing, or, to use English phraseology, is enacted as a statute. Where, on the other hand, every law can be legally changed with equal ease or with equal difficulty, there arises no absolute need for reducing the constitution to a written form, or even for looking upon a definite set of laws as specially making up the constitution. One main reason then why constitutional laws have not in England been recognised under that name, and in many cases have not been reduced to the form of a statutory enactment, is that one law, whatever its importance, can be passed and changed by exactly the same method as every other law. But it is a mistake to think that the whole law of the English constitution might not be reduced to writing and be enacted in the form of a constitutional code. The Belgian constitution indeed comes very near to a written reproduction of the English constitution, and the constitution of England might easily be turned into an Act of Parliament without suffering any material transformation of character, provided only that the English Parliament retained—what the Belgian Parliament, by the way, does not possess—the unrestricted power of repealing or amending the constitutional code.
illegibleThirdly, there does not exist in any part of the British Empire any, person or body of persons, executive, legislative or judicial, which can pronounce void any enactment passed by the British Parliament on the ground of such enactment being opposed to the constitution, or on any ground whatever, except, of course, its being repealed by Parliament.
These then are the three traits of Parliamentary sovereignty as it exists in England: first, the power of the legislature to alter any law, fundamental or otherwise, as freely and in the same manner as other laws; secondly, the absence of any legal distinction between constitutional and other laws; thirdly, the non-existence of any judicial or other authority having the right to nullify an Act of Parliament, or to treat it as void or unconstitutional.
illegible These traits are all exemplifications of the quality which my friend Mr. Bryce has happily denominated the “flexibility” of the British constitution. Every part of it can be expanded, curtailed, amended, or abolished, with equal ease. It is the most flexible polity in existence, and is therefore utterly different in character from the “rigid” constitutions (to use another expression of Mr. Bryce's) the whole or some part of which can be changed only by some extra-ordinary method of legislation.
NON-SOVEREIGN LAW-MAKING BODIES
From the attributes of a sovereign legislature it is possible to infer negatively what are the characteristics all (or some) of which are the marks of a non-sovereign law-making body, and which therefore may be called the marks or notes of legislative subordination.
These signs by which you may recognise the subordination of a law-making body are, first, the existence of laws affecting its constitution which such body must obey and cannot change; hence, secondly, the formation of a marked distinction between ordinary laws and fundamental laws; and lastly, the existence of some person or persons, judicial or otherwise, having authority to pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of laws passed by such law-making body.
Wherever any of these marks of subordination exist with regard to a given law-making body, they prove that it is not a sovereign legislature.
Meaning of term “law-making body”. Observe the use of the words “law-making body.”
This term is here employed as an expression which may include under one head both municipal bodies, such as railway companies, school-boards, town councils, and the like, which possess a limited power of making laws, but are not ordinarily called legislatures, and bodies such as the Parliaments of the British Colonies, of Belgium, or of France, which are ordinarily called “legislatures,” but are not in reality sovereign bodies.
The reason for grouping together under one name such very different kinds of “law-making” bodies is, that by far the best way of clearing up our ideas as to the nature of assemblies which, to use the foreign formula, are “legislative” without being “constituent,” and which therefore are not sovereign legislatures, is to analyse the characteristics of societies, such as English railway companies, which possess a certain legislative authority, though the authority is clearly delegated and subject to the obvious control of a superior legislature.
It will conduce to clearness of thought if we divide non-sovereign law-making bodies into the two great classes of obviously subordinate bodies. such as corporations, the Council of India, etc., and such legislatures of independent countries as are legislative without being constituent, i.e. are non-sovereign legislative bodies.
The consideration of the position of the non-sovereign legislatures which exist under the complicated form of constitution known as a federal government is best reserved for a separate chapter.
Subordinate Law-making Bodies
Subordinate BodiesCorporations An English railway company is as good an example as can be found of a subordinate law-making body. Corporations. Such a company is in the strictest sense a law-making society, for it can under the powers of its Act make laws (called bye-laws) for the regulation (inter alia) of travelling upon the railway, and can impose a penalty for the breach of such laws, which can be enforced by proceedings in the Courts. The rules therefore or bye-laws made by a company within the powers of its Act are “laws” in the strictest sense of the term, as any person will discover to his own cost who, when he travels by rail from Oxford to Paddington, deliberately violates a bye-law duly made by the Great Western Railway Company.
But though an English railway company is clearly a law-making body, it is clearly a non-sovereign law-making body. Its legislative power bears all the marks of subordination.
First, the company is bound to obey laws and (amongst others) the Act of Parliament creating the company, which it cannot change. This is obvious, and need not be insisted upon.
Secondly, there is the most marked distinction between the Act constituting the company, not a line of which can be changed by the company, and the bye-laws which, within the powers of its Act, the company can both make and change. Here we have on a very small scale the exact difference between constitutional laws which cannot, and ordinary laws which can, be changed by a subordinate legislature, i.e. by the company. The company, if we may apply to it the terms of constitutional law, is not a constituent, but is within certain limits a legislative assembly; and these limits are fixed by the constitution of the company.
Thirdly, the Courts have the right to pronounce, and indeed are bound to pronounce, on the validity of the company's bye-laws; that is, upon the validity, or to use political terms, on the constitutionality of the laws made by the company as a law-making body. Note particularly that it is not the function of any Court or judge to declare void or directly annul a bye-law made by a railway company. The function of the Court is simply, upon any particular case coming before it which depends upon a bye-law made by a railway company, to decide for the purposes of that particular case whether the bye-law is or is not within the powers conferred by Act of Parliament upon the company; that is to say, whether the bye-law is or is not valid, and to give judgment in the particular case according to the Court's view of the validity of the bye-law. It is worth while to examine with some care the mode in which English judges deal with the inquiry whether a particular bye-law is or is not within the powers given to the company by Act of Parliament, for to understand this point goes a good way towards understanding the exact way in which English or American Courts determine the constitutionality of Acts passed by a non-sovereign legislature.
The London and North-Western Railway Company made a bye-law by which
any person travelling without the special permission of some duly authorised servant of the company in a carriage or by a train of a superior class to that for which his ticket was issued is hereby subject to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings, and shall, in addition, be liable to pay his fare according to the class of carriage in which he is travelling from the station where the train originally started, unless he shows that he had no intention to defraud.
X, with the intention of defrauding the company, travelled in a first-class carriage instead of a second-class carriage for which his ticket was issued, and having been charged under the bye-law was convicted in the penalty of ten shillings, and costs. On appeal by X, the Court determined that the bye-law was illegal and void as being repugnant to 8 Vict. c. 20, s. 103, or in effect to the terms of the Act incorporating the company, and that therefore X could not be convicted of the offence charged against him.
A bye-law of the South-Eastern Railway Company required that a passenger should deliver up his ticket to a servant of the company when required to do so, and that any person travelling without a ticket or failing or refusing to deliver up his ticket should be required to pay the fare from the station whence the train originally started to the end of his journey. X had a railway ticket enabling him to travel on the South-Eastern Railway. Having to change trains and pass out of the company's station he was asked to show his ticket, and refused to do so, but without any fraudulent intention. He was summoned for a breach of the bye-law, and convicted in the amount of the fare from the station whence the train started. The Queen's Bench Division held the conviction wrong on the ground that the bye-law was for several reasons invalid, as not being authorised by the Act under which it purported to be made.
Now in these instances, and in other cases where the Courts pronounce upon the validity of a bye-law made by a body (e.g. a railway company or a school-board) having powers to make bye-laws enforceable by penalties, it is natural to say that the Courts pronounce the bye-laws valid or invalid. But this is not strictly the case. What the judges determine is not that a particular bye-law is invalid, for it is not the function of the Courts to repeal or annul the bye-laws made by railway companies, but that in a proceeding to recover a penalty from X for the breach of a bye-law judgment must be given on the basis of the particular bye-law being beyond the powers of the company, and therefore invalid. It may indeed be thought that the distinction between annulling a bye-law and determining a case upon the assumption of such bye-law being void is a distinction without a difference. But this is not so. The distinction is not without importance even when dealing with the question whether X, who is alleged to have broken a bye-law made by a railway company, is liable to pay a fine; it is of first-rate importance when the question before the Courts is one involving considerations of constitutional law, as for example when the Privy Council is called upon, as constantly happens, to determine cases which involve the validity or constitutionality of laws made by the Dominion Parliament or by one of the provincial Parliaments of Canada. The significance, however, of the distinction will become more apparent as we proceed with our subject; the matter of consequence now is to notice the nature of the distinction, and to realise that when a Court in deciding a given case considers whether a bye-law is, or is not, valid, the Court does a different thing from affirming or annulling the bye-law itself.
Legislative Council of British India Laws are made for British India by a Legislative Council having very wide powers of legislation. This Council, or, as it is technically expressed, the “Governor-General in Council,” can pass laws as important as any Acts passed by the British Parliament. But the authority of the Council in the way of law-making is as completely subordinate to, and as much dependent upon, Acts of Parliament as is the power of the London and North-Western Railway Company to make bye-laws.
The legislative powers of the Governor-General and his Council arise from definite Parliamentary enactments. These Acts constitute what may be termed as regards the Legislative Council the constitution of India. Now observe, that under these Acts the Indian Council is in the strictest sense a non-sovereign legislative body, and this independently of the fact that the laws or regulations made by the Governor-General in Council can be annulled or disallowed by the Crown; and note that the position of the Council exhibits all the marks or notes of legislative subordination.
First, the Council is bound by a large number of rules which cannot be changed by the Indian legislative body itself, and which can be changed by the superior power of the Imperial Parliament.
Secondly, the Acts themselves from which the Council derives its authority cannot be changed by the Council, and hence in regard to the Indian legislative body form a set of constitutional or fundamental laws, which, since they cannot be changed by the Council, stand in marked contrast with the laws or regulations which the Council is empowered to make. These fundamental rules contain, it must be added, a number of specific restrictions on the subjects with regard to which the Council may legislate. Thus the Governor-General in Council has no power of making laws which may affect the authority of Parliament, or any part of the unwritten laws or constitution of the United Kingdom, whereon may depend in any degree the allegiance of any person to the Crown of the United Kingdom, or the sovereignty or dominion of the Crown over any part of India.
Thirdly, the Courts in India (or in any other part of the British Empire) may, when the occasion arises, pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of laws made by the Indian Council.
The Courts treat Acts passed by the Indian Council precisely in the same way in which the King's Bench Division treats the bye-laws of a railway company. No judge in India or elsewhere ever issues a decree which declares invalid, annuls, or makes void a law or regulation made by the Governor-General in Council. But when any particular case comes before the Courts, whether civil or criminal, in which the rights or liabilities of any party are affected by the legislation of the Indian Council, the Court may have to consider and determine with a view to the particular case whether such legislation was or was not within the legal powers of the Council, which is of course the same thing as adjudicating as regards the particular case in hand upon the validity or constitutionality of the legislation in question. Thus suppose that X is prosecuted for the breach of a law or regulation passed by the Council, and suppose the fact to be established past a doubt that X has broken this law. The Court before which the proceedings take place, which must obviously in the ordinary course of things be an Indian Court, may be called upon to consider whether the regulation which X has broken is within the powers given to the Indian Council by the Acts of Parliament making up the Indian constitution. If the law is within such powers, or, in other words, is constitutional, the Court will by giving judgment against X give full effect to the law, just as effect is given to the bye-law of a railway company by the tribunal before whom an offender is sued pronouncing judgment against him for the penalty. If, on the other hand, the Indian Court deem that the regulation is ultra vires or unconstitutional, they will refuse to give effect to it, and treat it as void by giving judgment for the defendant on the basis of the regulation being invalid or having no legal existence. On this point the Empress v. Burah is most instructive. The details of the case are immaterial; the noticeable thing is that the High Court held a particular legislative enactment of the Governor-General in Council to be in excess of the authority given to him by the Imperial Parliament and therefore invalid, and on this ground entertained an appeal from two prisoners which, if the enactment had been valid, the Court would admittedly have been incompetent to entertain. The Privy Council, it is true, held on appeal that the particular enactment was within the legal powers of the Council and therefore valid, but the duty of the High Court of Calcutta to consider whether the legislation of the Governor-General was or was not constitutional, was not questioned by the Privy Council. To look at the same thing from another point of view, the Courts in India treat the legislation of the Governor-General in Council in a way utterly different from that in which any English Court can treat the Acts of the Imperial Parliament. An Indian tribunal may be called upon to say that an Act passed by the Governor-General need not be obeyed because it is unconstitutional or void. No British Court can give judgment, or ever does give judgment, that an Act of Parliament need not be obeyed because it is unconstitutional. Here, in short, we have the essential difference between subordinate and sovereign legislative power.
English ColoniesEnglish Colonies with Representative and Responsible Governments Many English colonies, and notably the Dominion of New Zealand (to which country our attention had best for the sake of clearness be specially directed), possess representative assemblies which occupy a somewhat peculiar position.
Powers exercised by colonial parliaments. The Parliament of the Dominion of New Zealand exercises throughout that country many of the ordinary powers of a sovereign assembly such as the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It makes and repeals laws, it puts Ministries in power and dismisses them from office, it controls the general policy of the New Zealand Government, and generally makes its will felt in the transaction of affairs after the manner of the Parliament at Westminster. An ordinary observer would, if he looked merely at the everyday proceedings of the New Zealand legislature, find no reason to pronounce it a whit less powerful within its sphere than the Parliament of the United Kingdom. No doubt the assent of the Governor is needed in order to turn colonial Bills into laws: and further investigation would show our inquirer that for the validity of any colonial Act there is required, in addition to the assent of the Governor, the sanction, either express or implied, of the Crown. But these assents are constantly given almost as a matter of course, and may be compared (though not with absolute correctness) to the Crown's so-called “veto” or right of refusing assent to Bills which have passed through the Houses of Parliament.
Limit to powers Yet for all this, when the matter is further looked into, the Dominion Parliament (together with other colonial legislatures) will be found to be a non-sovereign legislative body, and bears decisive marks of legislative subordination. The action of the Dominion Parliament is restrained by laws which it cannot change, and are changeable only by the Imperial Parliament; and further, New Zealand Acts, even when assented to by the Crown, are liable to be treated by the Courts in New Zealand and elsewhere throughout the British dominions as void or unconstitutional, on the ground of their coming into conflict with laws of the Imperial Parliament, which the colonial legislature has no authority to touch.
That this is so becomes apparent the moment we realise the exact relation between colonial and Imperial laws. The matter is worth some little examination, both for its own sake and for the sake of the light it throws on the sovereignty of Parliament.
The charter of colonial legislative independence is the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865.
illegible This statute seems (oddly enough) to have passed through Parliament without discussion; but it permanently defines and extends the authority of colonial legislatures, and its main provisions are of such importance as to deserve verbal citation:
Sec. 2. Any colonial law which is or shall be in any respect repugnant to the provisions of any Act of Parliament extending to the colony to which such law may relate, or repugnant to any order or regulation made under authority of such Act of Parliament, or having in the colony the force and effect of such Act, shall be read subject to such Act, order, or regulation, and shall, to the extent of such repugnancy, but not otherwise, be and remain absolutely void and inoperative.
3. No colonial law shall be or be deemed to have been void or inoperative on the ground of repugnancy to the law of England, unless the same shall be repugnant to the provisions of some such Act of Parliament, order, or regulation as aforesaid.
4. No colonial law, passed with the concurrence of or assented to by the Governor of any colony, or to be hereafter so passed or assented to, shall be or be deemed to have been void or inoperative, by reason only of any instructions with reference to such law or the subject thereof which may have been given to such Governor by or on behalf of Her Majesty, by any instrument other than the letters-patent or instrument authorising such Governor to concur in passing or to assent to laws for the peace, order, and good government of such colony, even though such instructions may be referred to in such letters-patent or last-mentioned instrument.
5. Every colonial legislature shall have, and be deemed at all times to have had, full power within its jurisdiction to establish courts of judicature, and to abolish and reconstitute the same, and to alter the constitution thereof, and to make provision for the administration of justice therein; and every representative legislature shall, in respect to the colony under its jurisdiction, have, and be deemed at all times to have had, full power to make laws respecting the constitution, powers, and procedure of such legislature; provided that such laws shall have been passed in such manner and form as may from time to time be required by any Act of Parliament, letters-patent, order in council, or colonial law for the time being in force in the said colony.
The importance, it is true, of the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865, may well be either exaggerated or quite possibly underrated. The statute is in one sense less important than it at first sight appears, because the principles laid down therein were, before its passing, more or less assumed, though with some hesitation, to be good law and to govern the validity of colonial legislation. From another point of view the Act is of the highest importance, because it determines, and gives legislative authority to, principles which had never before been accurately defined, and were liable to be treated as open to doubt. In any case the terms of the enactment make it now possible to state with precision the limits which bound the legislative authority of a colonial Parliament.
The Dominion Parliament may make laws opposed to the English common law, and such laws (on receiving the required assents) are perfectly valid.
Thus a New Zealand Act which changed the common law rules as to the descent of property, which gave the Governor authority to forbid public meetings, or which abolished trial by jury, might be inexpedient or unjust, but would be a perfectly valid law, and would be recognised as such by every tribunal throughout the British Empire.
The Dominion Parliament, on the other hand, cannot make any laws inconsistent with any Act of Parliament, or with any part of an Act of Parliament, intended by the Imperial Parliament to apply to New Zealand.
Suppose, for example, that the Imperial Parliament were to pass an Act providing a special mode of trial in New Zealand for particular classes of offences committed there, no enactment of the colonial Parliament, which provided that such offences should be tried otherwise than as directed by the imperial statute, would be of any legal effect. So again, no New Zealand Act would be valid that legalised the slave trade in the face of the Slave Trade Act, 1824, 5 George IV. c. 113, which prohibits slave trading throughout the British dominions; nor would Acts passed by the Dominion Parliament be valid which repealed, or invalidated, several provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 meant to apply to the colonies, or which deprived a discharge under the English Bankruptcy Act of the effect which, in virtue of the imperial statute, it has as a release from debts contracted in any part whatever of the British dominions. No colonial legislature, in short, can override imperial legislation which is intended to apply to the colonies. Whether the intention be expressed in so many words, or be apparent only from the general scope and nature of the enactment, is immaterial. Once establish that an imperial law is intended to apply to a given colony, and the consequence follows that any colonial enactment which contravenes that law is invalid and unconstitutional.
illegible Hence the Courts in the Dominion of New Zealand, as also in the rest of the British Empire, may be called upon to adjudicate upon the validity or constitutionality of any Act of the Dominion Parliament. For if a New Zealand law really contradicts the provisions of an Act of Parliament extending to New Zealand, no Court throughout the British dominions could legally, it is clear, give effect to the enactment of the Dominion Parliament. This is an inevitable result of the legislative sovereignty exercised by the Imperial Parliament. In the supposed case the Dominion Parliament commands the judges to act in a particular manner, and the Imperial Parliament commands them to act in another manner. Of these two commands the order of the Imperial Parliament is the one which must be obeyed. This is the very meaning of Parliamentary sovereignty. Whenever, therefore, it is alleged that any enactment of the Dominion Parliament is repugnant to the provisions of any Act of the Imperial Parliament extending to the colony, the tribunal before which the objection is raised must pronounce upon the validity or constitutionality of the colonial law.
Colonial Parliament may be a “constituent” as well as legislative body. The constitution of New Zealand is created by and depends upon the New Zealand Constitution Act, 1852,15 & 16 Vict. c. 72, and the Acts amending the same. One might therefore expect that the Parliament of the Dominion of New Zealand, which may conveniently be called the New Zealand Parliament, would exhibit that “mark of subordination” which consists in the inability of a legislative body to change fundamental or constitutional laws, or (what is the same thing) in the clearly drawn distinction between ordinary laws which the legislature can change and laws of the constitution which it cannot change, at any rate when acting in its ordinary legislative character. But this anticipation is hardly borne out by an examination into the Acts creating the constitution of New Zealand. A comparison of the Colonial Laws Validity Act, 1865, s. 5, with the New Zealand Constitution Act, as subsequently amended, shows that the New Zealand Parliament can change the articles of the constitution. This power, derived from imperial statutes, is of course in no way inconsistent with the legal sovereignty of the Imperial Parliament. One may fairly therefore assert that the New Zealand Parliament, in common with many other colonial legislative assemblies, is, though a “subordinate,” at once a legislative and a constituent assembly. It is a “subordinate” assembly because its powers are limited by the legislation of the Imperial Parliament; it is a constituent assembly since it can change the articles of the constitution of New Zealand. The authority of the New Zealand Parliament to change the articles of the constitution of New Zealand is from several points of view worth notice.
Reason of this We have here a decisive proof that there is no necessary connection between the written character and the immutability of a constitution. The New Zealand constitution is to be found in a written document; it is a statutory enactment. Yet the articles of this constitutional statute can be changed by the Parliament which it creates, and changed in the same manner as any other law. This may seem an obvious matter enough, but writers of eminence so often use language which implies or suggests that the character of a law is changed by its being expressed in the form of a statute as to make it worth while noting that a statutory constitution need not be in any sense an immutable constitution. The readiness again with which the English Parliament has conceded constituent powers to colonial legislatures shows how little hold is exercised over Englishmen by that distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental laws which runs through almost all the constitutions not only of the Continent but also of America. The explanation appears to be that in England we have long been accustomed to consider Parliament as capable of changing one kind of law with as much ease as another. Hence when English statesmen gave Parliamentary government to the colonies, they almost as a matter of course bestowed upon colonial legislatures authority to deal with every law, whether constitutional or not, which affected the colony, subject of course to the proviso, rather implied than expressed, that this power should not be used in a way inconsistent with the supremacy of the British Parliament. The colonial legislatures, in short, are within their own sphere copies of the Imperial Parliament. They are within their own sphere sovereign bodies; but their freedom of action is controlled by their subordination to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
How conflict between imperial and colonial ligslation are avoided. The question may naturally be asked how the large amount of colonial liberty conceded to countries like New Zealand has been legally reconciled with Imperial sovereignty?
The inquiry lies a little outside our subject, but is not really foreign to it, and well deserves an answer. Nor is the reply hard to find if we keep in mind the true nature of the difficulty which needs explanation.
The problem is not to determine what are the means by which the English Government keeps the colonies in subjection, or maintains the political sovereignty of the United Kingdom. This is a matter of politics with which this book has no concern.
The question to be answered is how (assuming the law to be obeyed throughout the whole of the British Empire) colonial legislative freedom is made compatible with the legislative sovereignty of Parliament? How are the Imperial Parliament and the colonial legislatures prevented from encroaching on each other's spheres?
No one will think this inquiry needless who remarks that in confederations, such as the United States, or the Canadian Dominion, the Courts are constantly occupied in determining the boundaries which divide the legislative authority of the Central Government from that of the State Legislatures.
conflict converted by illegible supremacy of british parhament, The assertion may sound paradoxical, but is nevertheless strictly true, that the acknowledged legal supremacy of Parliament is one main cause of the wide power of legislation allowed to colonial assemblies.
The constitutions of the colonies depend directly or indirectly upon imperial statutes. No lawyer questions that Parliament could legally abolish any colonial constitution, or that Parliament can at any moment legislate for the colonies and repeal or override any colonial law whatever. Parliament moreover does from time to time pass Acts affecting the colonies, and the colonial, no less than the English, Courts completely admit the principle that a statute of the Imperial Parliament binds any part of the British dominions to which the statute is meant to apply. But when once this is admitted, it becomes obvious that there is little necessity for defining or limiting the sphere of colonial legislation. If an Act of the New Zealand Parliament contravenes an imperial statute, it is for legal purposes void; and if an Act of the New Zealand Parliament, though not infringing upon any statute, is so opposed to the interests of the Empire that it ought not to be passed, the British Parliament may render the Act of no effect by means of an imperial statute.
illegible of veto This course, however, is rarely, if ever, necessary; for Parliament exerts authority over colonial legislation by in effect regulating the use of the Crown's “veto” in regard to colonial Acts. This is a matter which itself needs a little explanation.
The Crown's right to refuse assent to bills which have passed through the Houses of Parliament is practically obsolete. The power of the Crown to negative or veto the bills of colonial legislatures stands on a different footing. It is virtually, though not in name, the right of the Imperial Parliament to limit colonial legislative independence, and is frequently exercised.
This check on colonial legislation is exerted in two different manners.
The Governor of a colony, say New Zealand, may directly refuse his assent to a bill passed by both Houses of the New Zealand Parliament. In this case the bill is finally lost, just as would be a bill which had been rejected by the colonial council, or as would be a bill passed by the English Houses of Parliament if the Crown were to exert the obsolete prerogative of refusing the royal assent. The Governor, again, may, without refusing his assent, reserve the bill for the consideration of the Crown. In such case the bill does not come into force until it has received the royal assent, which is in effect the assent of the English Ministry, and therefore indirectly of the Imperial Parliament.
The Governor, on the other hand, may, as representing the Crown, give his assent to a New Zealand bill. The bill thereupon comes into force throughout New Zealand. But such a bill, though for a time a valid Act, is not finally made law even in New Zealand, since the Crown may, after the Governor's assent has been given, disallow the colonial Act. The case is thus put by Mr. Todd:
Although a governor as representing the Crown is empowered to give the royal assent to bills, this act is not final and conclusive; the Crown itself having, in point of fact, a second veto. All statutes assented to by the governor of a colony go into force immediately, unless they contain a clause suspending their operation until the issue of a proclamation of approval by the queen in council, or some other specific provision to the contrary; but the governor is required to transmit a copy thereof to the secretary of state for the colonies; and the queen in council may, within two years after the receipt of the same, disallow any such Act.”
The result therefore of this state of things is, that colonial legislation is subject to a real veto on the part of the imperial government, and no bill which the English Ministry think ought for the sake of imperial interests to be negatived can, though passed by the New Zealand or other colonial legislature, come finally into force. The home government is certain to negative or disallow any colonial law which, either in letter or in spirit, is repugnant to Parliamentary legislation, and a large number of Acts can be given which on one ground or another have been either not assented to or disallowed by the Crown. In 2868 the Crown refused assent to a Canadian Act reducing the salary of the Governor-General. In 1872 the Crown refused assent to a Canadian Copyright Act because certain parts of it conflicted with imperial legislation. In 1873 a Canadian Act was disallowed as being contrary to the express terms of the British North America Act, 1868; and on similar grounds in 1878 a Canadian Shipping Act was disallowed. So again the Crown has at times in effect passed a veto upon Australian Acts for checking Chinese immigration. And Acts passed by a colonial legislature, allowing divorce on the ground solely of the husband's adultery or (before the passing of the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act, 1907, 7 Edward VII. c. 47) legalising marriage with a deceased wife's sister or with a deceased husband's brother, have (though not consistently with the general tenor of our colonial policy) been sometimes disallowed by the Crown, that is, in effect by the home government.
The general answer therefore to the inquiry, how colonial liberty of legislation is made legally reconcilable with imperial sovereignty, is that the complete recognition of the supremacy of Parliament obviates the necessity for carefully limiting the authority of colonial legislatures, and that the home government, who in effect represent Parliament, retain by the use of the Crown's veto the power of preventing the occurrence of conflicts between colonial and imperial laws. To this it must be added that imperial treaties legally bind the colonies, and that the “treaty-making power,” to use an American expression, resides in the Crown, and is therefore exercised by the home government in accordance with the wishes of the Houses of Parliament, or more strictly of the House of Commons; whilst the authority to make treaties is, except where expressly allowed by Act of Parliament, not possessed by any colonial government.
It should, however, be observed that the legislature of a self-governing colony is free to determine whether or not to pass laws necessary for giving effect to a treaty entered into between the imperial government and a foreign power; and further, that there might in practice be great difficulty in enforcing within the limits of a colony the terms of a treaty, e.g. as to the extradition of criminals, to which colonial sentiment was opposed. But this does not affect the principle of law that a colony is bound by treaties made by the imperial government, and does not, unless under some special provision of an Act of Parliament, possess authority to make treaties with any foreign power.
Policy of imperial government not Knterfere with action of colonies Any one who wishes justly to appreciate the nature and the extent of the control exerted by Great Britain over colonial legislation should keep two points carefully in mind. The tendency, in the first place, of the imperial government is as a matter of policy to interfere less and less with the action of the colonies, whether in the way of law-making or otherwise. Colonial Acts, in the second place, even when finally assented to by the Crown, are, as already pointed out, invalid if repugnant to an Act of Parliament applying to the colony. The imperial policy therefore of non-intervention in the local affairs of British dependencies combines with the supreme legislative authority of the Imperial Parliament to render encroachments by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on the sphere of colonial legislation, or by colonial Parliaments on the domain of imperial legislation, of comparatively rare occurrence.
Foreign Non-sovereign Legislatures
non sovereign legislatures of independent nations We perceive without difficulty that the Parliaments of even those colonies, such as the Dominion of Canada, or the Australian Commonwealth, which are most nearly independent states, are not in reality sovereign legislatures. This is easily seen, because the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, which legislates for the whole British Empire, is visible in the background, and because the colonies, however large their practical freedom of action, do not act as independent powers in relation to foreign states; the Parliament of a dependency cannot itseff be a sovereign body. It is harder for Englishmen to realise that the legislative assembly of an independent nation may not be a sovereign assembly. Our political habits of thought indeed are so based upon the assumption of Parliamentary omnipotence, that the position of a Parliament which represents an independent nation and yet is not itself a sovereign power is apt to appear to us exceptional or anomalous. Yet whoever examines the constitutions of civilised countries will find that the legislative assemblies of great nations are, or have been, in many cases legislative without being constituent bodies. To determine in any given case whether a foreign legislature be a sovereign power or not we must examine the constitution of the state to which it belongs, and ascertain whether the legislature whose position is in question bears any of the marks of subordination. Such an investigation will in many or in most instances show that an apparently sovereign assembly is in reality a non-sovereign law-making body.
France. France has within the last hundred and thirty years made trial of at least twelve constitutions.
These various forms of government have, amidst all their differences, possessed in general one common feature. They have most of them been based upon the recognition of an essential distinction between constitutional or “fundamental” laws intended to be either immutable or changeable only with great difficulty, and “ordinary” laws which could be changed by the ordinary legislature in the common course of legislation. Hence under the constitutions which France has from time to time adopted the common Parliament or legislative body has not been a sovereign legislature.
Constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. The constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe, in outward appearance at least, was modelled on the constitutional monarchy of England. In the Charter not a word could be found which expressly limits the legislative authority possessed by the Crown and the two Chambers, and to an Englishman it would seem certainly arguable that under the Orleans dynasty the Parliament was possessed of sovereignty. This, however, was not the view accepted among French lawyers. Tocqueville writes:
The immutability of the Constitution of France is a necessary consequence of the laws of that country. … As the King, the Peers, and the Deputies all derive their authority from the Constitution, these three powers united cannot alter a law by virtue of which alone they govern. Out of the pale of the Constitution they are nothing; where, then, could they take their stand to effect a change in its provisions? The alternative is clear: either their efforts are powerless against the Charter, which continues to exist in spite of them, in which case they only reign in the name of the Charter; or they succeed in changing the Charter, and then the law by which they existed being annulled, they themselves cease to exist. By destroying the Charter, they destroy themselves. This is much more evident in the laws of 1830 than in those of 1814. In 1814 the royal prerogative took its stand above and beyond the Constitution; but in 1830 it was avowedly created by, and dependent on, the Constitution. A part, therefore, of the French Constitution is immutable, because it is united to the destiny of a family; and the body of the Constitution is equally immutable, because there appear to be no legal means of changing it. These remarks are not applicable to England. That country having no written Constitution, who can assert when its Constitution is changed?
Tocqueville's reasoning may not carry conviction to an Englishman, but the weakness of his argument is of itself strong evidence of the influence of the hold on French opinion of the doctrine which it is intended to support, namely, that Parliamentary sovereignty was not a recognised part of French constitutionalism. The dogma which is so naturally assented to by Englishmen contradicts that idea of the essential difference between constitutional and other laws which appears to have a firm hold on most foreign statesmen and legislators.
The Republic of 1848 The Republic of 1848 expressly recognised this distinction; no single article of the constitution proclaimed on 4th November 1848 could be changed in the same way as an ordinary law. The legislative assembly sat for three years. In the last year of its existence, and then only, it could by a majority of three-fourths, and not otherwise, convoke a constituent body with authority to modify the constitution. This constituent and sovereign assembly differed in numbers, and otherwise, from the ordinary non-sovereign legislature.
Present Republic The National Assembly of the French Republic exerts at least as much direct authority as the English Houses of Parliament. The French Chamber of Deputies exercises at least as much influence on the appointment of Ministers, and controls the action of the government, at least as strictly as does our House of Commons. The President, moreover, does not possess even a theoretical right of veto. For all this, however, the French Parliament is not a sovereign assembly, but is bound by the laws of the constitution in a way in which no law binds our Parliament. The articles of the constitution, or “fundamental laws,” stand in a totally different position from the ordinary law of the land. Under article 8 of the constitution, no one of these fundamental enactments can be legally changed otherwise than subject to the following provisions:
8. Les Chambres auront le droit, par deliberations séparées, prises dans chacune a la majorité absolue des voix, soit spontanement, soit sur la demanded du Président de la République, de déclarer qu'il y a lieu de réviser les lois constitutionnelles. Après que chacune des deux Chambres aura pris cette résolution, elles se réuniront en Assemblée nationale pour procéder à la révision. —Les délibérations portant révision des lois constitutionnelles, en toutouen partie, devront être prises à la majorité absolue des membres composant l‧Assemblée nationale.
Supreme legislative power is therefore under the Republic vested not in the ordinary Parliament of two Chambers, but in a “national assembly,” or congress, composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate sitting together.
Distinction between flexible and rigid constitution The various constitutions, in short, of France, which are in this respect fair types of continental polities, exhibit, as compared with the expansiveness or “flexibility” of English institutions, that characteristic which may be conveniently described as “rigidity.”
And here it is worth while, with a view to understanding the constitution of our own country, to make perfectly clear to ourselves the distinction already referred to between a “flexible” and a “rigid” constitution.
flexible constitution A “flexible” constitution is one under which every law of every description can legally be changed with the same case and in the same manner by one and the same body. The “flexibility” of our constitution consists in the right of the Crown and the two Houses to modify or repeal any law whatever; they can alter the succession to the Crown or repeal the Acts of Union in the same manner in which they can pass an Act enabling a company to make a new railway from Oxford to London. With us, laws therefore are called constitutional, because they refer to subjects supposed to affect the fundamental institutions of the state, and not because they are legally more sacred or difficult to change than other laws. And as a matter of fact, the meaning of the word “constitutional” is in England so vague that the term “a constitutional law or enactment” is rarely applied to any English statute as giving a definite description of its character.
rigid constitution A “rigid” constitution is one under which certain laws generally known as constitutional or fundamental laws cannot be changed in the same manner as ordinary laws. The “rigidity” of the constitution, say of Belgium or of France, consists in the absence of any right on the part of the Belgian or French Parliament, when acting in its ordinary capacity, to modify or repeal certain definite laws termed constitutional or fundamental. Under a rigid constitution the term “constitutional” as applied to a law has a perfectly definite sense. It means that a particular enactment belongs to the articles of the constitution, and cannot be legally changed with the same ease and in the same manner as ordinary laws. The articles of the constitution will no doubt generally, though by no means invariably, be found to include all the most important and fundamental laws of the state. But it certainly cannot be asserted that where a constitution is rigid all its articles refer to matters of supreme importance. The rule that the French Parliament must meet at Versailles was at one time one of the constitutional laws of the French Republic. Such an enactment, however practically important, would never in virtue of its own character have been termed constitutional; it was constitutional simply because it was included in the articles of the constitution.
The contrast between the flexibility of the English and the rigidity of almost every foreign constitution suggests two interesting inquiries.
Whether rigidity of constitution secures permanence?First, does the rigidity of a constitution secure its permanence and invest the fundamental institutions of the state with practical immutability?
To this inquiry historical experience gives an indecisive answer.
In some instances the fact that certain laws or institutions of a state have been marked off as placed beyond the sphere of political controversy, has, apparently, prevented that process of gradual innovation which in England has, within not much more than sixty years, transformed our polity. The constitution of Belgium stood for more than half a century without undergoing, in form at least, any material change whatever. The constitution of the United States has lasted for more than a hundred years, but has not undergone anything like the amount of change which has been experienced by the constitution of England since the death of George the Third. But if the inflexibility of constitutional laws has in certain instances checked the gradual and unconscious process of innovation by which the foundations of a commonwealth are undermined, the rigidity of constitutional forms has in other cases provoked revolution. The twelve unchangeable constitutions of France have each lasted on an average for less than ten years, and have frequently perished by violence. Louis Philippe's monarchy was destroyed within seven years of the time when Tocqueville pointed out that no power existed legally capable of altering the articles of the Charter. In one notorious instance at least—and other examples of the same phenomenon might be produced from the annals of revolutionary France—the immutability of the constitution was the ground or excuse for its violent subversion. The best plea for the Coup d'état of 1851 was, that while the French people wished for the re-election of the President, the article of the constitution requiring a majority of three-fourths of the legislative assembly in order to alter the law which made the President's reelection impossible, thwarted the will of the sovereign people. Had the Republican Assembly been a sovereign Parliament, Louis Napoleon would have lacked the plea, which seemed to justify, as well as some of the motives which tempted him to commit, the crime of the 2nd of December.
Nor ought the perils in which France was involved by the immutability with which the statesmen of 1848 invested the constitution to be looked upon as exceptional; they arose from a defect which is inherent in every rigid constitution. The endeavour to create laws which cannot be changed is an attempt to hamper the exercise of sovereign power; it therefore tends to bring the letter of the law into conflict with the will of the really supreme power in the state. The majority of French electors were under the constitution the true sovereign of France; but the rule which prevented the legal re-election of the President in effect brought the law of the land into conflict with the will of the majority of the electors, and produced, therefore, as a rigid constitution has a natural tendency to produce, an opposition between the letter of the law and the wishes of the sovereign. If the inflexibility of French constitutions has provoked revolution, the flexibility of English institutions has, once at least, saved them from violent overthrow. To a student, who at this distance of time calmly studies the history of the first Reform Bill, it is apparent, that in 1832 the supreme legislative authority of Parliament enabled the nation to carry through a political revolution under the guise of a legal reform.
The rigidity, in short, of a constitution tends to check gradual innovation; but, just because it impedes change, may, under unfavourable circumstances, occasion or provoke revolution.
What are the sateguards against unconstitutional legislation?Secondly, what are the safeguards which under a rigid constitution can be taken against unconstitutional legislation?
The general answer to our inquiry (which of course can have no application to a country like England, ruled by a sovereign Parliament) is that two methods may be, and have been, adopted by the makers of constitutions, with a view to rendering unconstitutional legislation, either impossible, or inoperative.
Reliance may be placed upon the force of public opinion and upon the ingenious balancing of political powers for restraining the legislature from passing unconstitutional enactments. This system opposes unconstitutional legislation by means of moral sanctions, which resolve themselves into the influence of public sentiment.
Authority, again, may be given to some person or body of persons, and preferably to the Courts, to adjudicate upon the constitutionality of legislative acts, and treat them as void if they are inconsistent with the letter or the spirit of the constitution. This system attempts not so much to prevent unconstitutional legislation as to render it harmless through the intervention of the tribunals, and rests at bottom on the authority of the judges.
This general account of the two methods by which it may be attempted to secure the rigidity of a constitution is hardly intelligible without further illustration. Its meaning may be best understood by a comparison between the different policies in regard to the legislature pursued by two different classes of constitutionalists.
Sateguards? provided by continental constitutionalists French constitution-makers and their continental followers have, as we have seen, always attached vital importance to the distinction between fundamental and other laws, and therefore have constantly created legislative assemblies which possessed “legislative” without possessing “constituent” powers. French statesmen have therefore been forced to devise means for keeping the ordinary legislature within its appropriate sphere. Their mode of procedure has been marked by a certain uniformity; they have declared on the face of the constitution the exact limits imposed upon the authority of the legislature; they have laid down as articles of the constitution whole bodies of maxims intended to guide and control the course of legislation; they have provided for the creation, by special methods and under special conditions, of a constituent body which alone should be entitled to revise the constitution. They have, in short, directed their attention to restraining the ordinary legislature from attempting any inroad upon the fundamental laws of the state; but they have in general trusted to public sentiment, or at any rate to political considerations, for inducing the legislature to respect the restraints imposed on its authority, and have usually omitted to provide machinery for annulling unconstitutional enactments, or for rendering them of no effect.
French Revolutionary constitutions These traits of French constitutionalism are specially noticeable in the three earliest of French political experiments. The Monarchical constitution of 1791, the Democratic constitution of 1793, the Directorial constitution of 1795 exhibit, under all their diversities, two features in common. They each, on the one hand, confine the power of the legislature within very narrow limits indeed; under the Directory, for instance, the legislative body could not itself change any one of the 377 articles of the constitution, and the provisions for creating a constituent assembly were so framed that not the very least alteration in any of these articles could have been carried out within a period of less than nine years. None of these constitutions, on the other hand, contain a hint as to the mode in which a law is to be treated which is alleged to violate the constitution. Their framers indeed hardly seem to have recognised the fact that enactments of the legislature might, without being in so many words opposed to the constitution, yet be of dubious constitutionality, and that some means would be needed for determining whether a given law was or was not in opposition to the principles of the constitution.
Existing Republican constitution. These characteristics of the revolutionary constitutions have been reported in the works of later French constitutionalists. Under the present French Republic there exist a certain number of laws (not it is true a very large number), which the Parliament cannot change; and what is perhaps of more consequence, the so-called Congress could at any time increase the number of fundamental laws, and thereby greatly decrease the authority of future Parliaments. The constitution, however, contains no article providing against the possibility of an ordinary Parliament carrying through legislation greatly in excess of its constitutional powers. Any one in fact who bears in mind the respect paid in France from the time of the Revolution onwards to the legislation of de facto governments and the traditions of the French judicature, will assume with confidence that an enactment passed through the Chambers, promulgated by the President, and published in the Bulletin des Lois, will be held valid by every tribunal throughout the Republic.
are the articles of continental constitutions“laws”? This curious result therefore ensues. The restrictions placed on the action of the legislature under the French constitution are not in reality laws, since they are not rules which in the last resort will be enforced by the Courts. Their true character is that of maxims of political morality, which derive whatever strength they possess from being formally inscribed in the constitution and from the resulting support of public opinion. What is true of the constitution of France applies with more or less force to other politics which have been formed under the influence of French ideas. The Belgian constitution, for example, restricts the action of the Parliament no less than does the Republican constitution of France. But it is at least doubtful whether Belgian constitutionalists have provided any means whatever for invalidating laws which diminish or do away with the rights (e.g. the right of freedom of speech) “guaranteed” to Belgian citizens. The jurists of Belgium maintain, in theory at least, that an Act of Parliament opposed to any article of the constitution ought to be treated by the Courts as void. But during the whole period of Belgian independence, no tribunal, it is said, has ever pronounced judgment upon the constitutionality of an Act of Parliament. This shows, it may be said, that the Parliament has respected the constitution, and certainly affords some evidence that, under favourable circumstances, formal declarations of rights may, from their influence on popular feeling, possess greater weight than is generally attributed to them in England; but it also suggests the notion that in Belgium, as in France, the restrictions on Parliamentary authority are supported mainly by moral or political sentiment, and are at bottom rather constitutional understandings than laws.
To an English critic, indeed, the attitude of continental and especially of revolutionary statesmen towards the ordinary legislature bears an air of paradox. They seem to be almost equally afraid of leaving the authority of the ordinary legislature unfettered, and of taking the steps by which the legislature may be prevented from breaking through the bonds imposed upon its power. The explanation of this apparent inconsistency is to be found in two sentiments which have influenced French constitution-makers from the very outbreak of the Revolution—an over-estimate of the effect to be produced by general declarations of rights, and a settled jealousy of any intervention by the judges in the sphere of politics. We shall see, in a later chapter, that the public law of France is still radically influenced by the belief, even now almost universal among Frenchmen, that the law Courts must not be allowed to interfere in any way whatever with matters of state, or indeed with anything affecting the machinery of government.
Safe guards provided by found United states The authors of the American constitution have, for reasons that will appear in my next chapter, been even more anxious than French statesmen to limit the authority of every legislative body throughout the Republic. They have further shared the faith of continental politicians in the value possessed by general declarations of rights. But they have, unlike French constitution-makers, directed their attention, not so much to preventing Congress and other legislatures from making laws in excess of their powers, as to the invention of means by which the effect of unconstitutional laws may be nullified; and this result they have achieved by making it the duty of every judge throughout the Union to treat as void any enactment which violates the constitution, and thus have given to the restrictions contained in the constitution on the legislative authority either of Congress or the State legislatures the character of real laws, that is, of rules enforced by the Courts. This system, which makes the judges the guardians of the constitution, provides the only adequate safeguard which has hitherto been invented against unconstitutional legislation.
The refusal of the Governor's assent to a bill.
Reservation of a bill for the consideration of the Crown, and the subsequent lapse of the bill owing to the royal assent being refused, or not being given within the statutory time.
The insertion in a bill of a clause preventing it from coming into operation until the signification of the royal assent thereto, and the want of such royal assent.
The disallowance by the Crown of a law passed by the Colonial Parliament with the assent of the Governor.