‘In British constitutional theory and practice there is a clear-cut distinction between law and convention. Law derives from common law and statute, and is enforceable by the courts. Convention derives from constitutional principle and practice and is not enforceable by the courts. Law remains in force until changed by statute. Convention may change with changing times. Law, at least if statutory, is ascertainable in precise form. Convention is often imprecise and may be nowhere formulated in categorical terms.’ (Professor H.W.R. Wade)
Is this an accurate explanation of the distinctive nature of law and convention in relation to the British constitution?
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Professor H.W.R Wade produced a statement highlighting a clear-cut distinction between the nature of law and convention in relation to the British Constitution. Throughout this essay I shall critically asses the validity and accuracy of his explanation by taking an in depth look at key concepts, doctrines and comments to evaluate whether a distinction exists between the nature of law and convention.
Whilst Britain does not have a single codified document called ‘The Constitution’, it would be deceptive to assert that the constitution is unwritten. Indeed, Britain’s constitution has been cultivated from multiple key constitutional sources which make it possible to approach a description of the constitution. These sources can be found in the decisions of the courts in the form of dictum or in the interpretation of statute. With Britain being a member state of the European Union part of the constitution can emanate from EU Law, the Royal Prerogative, and a distinct part is found in historical arrangements and practices known as conventions.
I shall be focusing primarily on the nature of law and conventions, in relation to the British constitution in order to assess whether a distinctions is visible between the two constitutional sources.
Professor Wade asserts that “Law derives from common law and statute, and is enforceable by the courts. Convention derives from constitutional principle and practice is not enforceable by the courts”. Accordingly, it would be just to establish that from a precise detailed point of view, this statement can be seen to be contentious. This is primarily because Professor Wade highlights that the “Law derives from common law and statute” however what he seizes to base emphasis on is the mere fact that conventions set a key agenda in the crafting of statute and common law reasoning; in the words of Sir Ivor Jennings “conventions provide the flesh which clothes the dry bones of the law” Thus, evidently the legal hierarchy of the British constitution is everywhere penetrated, transformed and inherently effected by an inevitable element of convention, and a failure to adhere to an important convention might lead Parliament to cast a disputed practice into legislative form. An example of this is The Parliament Act 1911, which was enforced after the House of Lords exceeded conventional limits on its power, rejecting, in 1909, a finance bill (Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’). This consequently undermines, to some extent, the clear-cut distinction Professor Wade respectively explains, in that, if conventions are so interconnected in the cultivation of the natural form of law as mentioned above then a distinction cannot be clear-cut or even made, and this connection will always bind the natural law and conventions.
Evidently the natural form of law is enforceable by the courts. Professor Wade makes a distinction here between the nature of law and convention by stating that “Law is enforceable by the courts….Convention is not enforceable by the courts” The issue here arises with regards to the validity of this statement. Are conventions indeed distinctly dissimilar to the nature of law in that they are not enforceable by the courtsIndeed, conventions are rules and are part of the constitutional order, interrelated and interwoven to some extent, however relatively distinguishable from the natural form of law as Professor Wade asserts. The key distinction is in the nature of the enforcement and of the sanction. As mentioned above the natural form of law is inherently enforced in the courts; however it could be debated as to whether conventions are fully applied in courts (discussed further below), conventions are most certainly non-legal but nonetheless binding rules of constitutional behaviour. A good example of this is the convention of ministerial responsibility. It is a convention which holds ministers wholly and individually responsible to Parliament. If a minister knowingly misleads parliament for example he or she will be expected to resign from office. If no resignation is forthcoming the minister would be acting unconstitutionally and NOT illegally. A court of law could not compel a resignation in this situation.
Nonetheless, in the case of R. v Secretary of State for the Home Department Ex p. Hosenball the court had relaxed the rules of natural justice “for the protection of the realm” in a case were the Secretary of State had considered information that Mr.Hosenball, while resident in the United Kingdom, had sought and obtained for publication information harmful to the security of the United Kingdom. This case proves that the courts were willing to shape up the natural form of the law and enforce a convention for public interest in order to ensure the security of the ‘realm’. A key point to address in this case was that the Secretary of State had not arguably acted fairly in that Mr.Hosenball was denied a fair trial. In today’s court this would infringe article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Therefore, it would be fair to establish that in today’s courts the judiciary would have taken a different approach to tackling the aforementioned case. So is Professor Wade accurate in explaining that a distinction between the nature of law and convention exists on the basis that law is enforceable by the courts and convention is notCertainly the above case contradicts to this to some extent; however a reluctance of the modern courts to enforce conventions has crafted this distinction, making Professor Wade’s distinction relatively accurate on this basis. However as highlighted by the convention of ministerial responsibility a distinction can be formed between a convention and the natural form of law on the basis that acting unconstitutionally differs from acting illegally as highlighted above.
Professor Wade explains that a distinction exists between the nature of law and convention on the basis that “Law remains in force until changed by statute, and convention may change with changing times”. Accordingly Professor Wade is to some extent right in this distinction, in that we have seen numerous acts of parliament being superseded and changed by more modern statutes. Furthermore, it would be fair to establish that courts accept the validity of the acts of Parliament and have validated the concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty, and although the courts do not directly challenge legislation passed down by Parliament, a strong part of the constitution comprises of common law and not solely statute law, particularly in certain cases involving private law including tort and contract law. Thus to some extent it could be inaccurate and problematic to assert that “law remains in force until changed by statute”.
Furthermore, Professor Wade, establishes that “conventions may change with changing times”. He is indeed relatively accurate in making this statement, as proven by the ‘Widdicombe Convention’ which was formally recorded to resolve any conventional ambiguities with regards to the media and publicity campaigns. This convention was effectively the result of the growing media and the influence it had on society. This convention inherently proves the accuracy of Professor Wade’s explanation that ‘conventions may change with times’. However the legitimacy of this distinction is inaccurate in a sense on the grounds that even the law may change with time, after all, this is why we have a parliament and a superior court system. With changes in society comes change in the law, this is the basic foundation of any competent legal system. Alas, this asserts that Professor Wade’s distinction is relatively inaccurate as both the natural form of law and conventions change with time in order to sufficiently meet the ever changing needs of our society.
Another distinction Professor Wade explains in his statement is that the “law, at least if statutory, is ascertainable in precise form, convention is often imprecise and may be nowhere formulated in categorical forms” To some extent it can be rather contentious to assert that statutory law is precise in its form. This is merely because a broad term may be used in a statute which can give rise to confusion and uncertainty, developments in society can make the words used in a statute out of date and they may no longer cover the current situation. An example of this is in Section 53, Coroners and Justice Act 2009 c. 25. However the important distinction made here is the statement asserting that “conventions are often imprecise and may be nowhere formulated in categorical form”. A good authority which validly contradicts to this inaccurate distinction is the convention of ministerial responsibility which is included in the Ministerial Code, which is issued upon appointment to all ministers by the Prime Minister. The convention clearly sets out the conventions and codes of practice as a minister.
Thus, in conclusion after critically assessing Professor Wade’s explanation of the distinctive nature of law and convention in relation to the British constitution I have established that some of the distinctions he explains are more accurate than others. Initially the Parliament Act 1911 proved that failure to adhere to an important convention might lead Parliament to cast a disputed practice into legislative form which undermined Professor Wade’s explanation, and proves that convention can indeed constitute into law. Furthermore the case of R. v Secretary of State for the Home Department Ex p. Hosenball proved that a convention could to some extent be enforceable in order to ensure the protection of the ‘realm’. I also established that Professor Wade was accurate in asserting that a “convention may change in time” as proven by the Widdicombe Convention, however his distinction could be seen as inaccurate as even the natural form of law can be changed in time to suit the needs of society. The convention of ministerial responsibility’s clarity contradicts Professor Wade’s distinction which stated that “that convention is imprecise in comparison to the precise form of law”. Therefore the aforementioned examples highlight that Professor Wade’s respective explanation although rightful in some aspects; the distinctions made can seem too broad and relatively inaccurate in some arspects in defining a convention and comparing it to the natural form of law.
Ward, R. (1997) Cases on Constitutional & Administrative Law 4th edition, Pitman Publishing
Horsey, K. (2009) Tort Law, Oxford University Press
Leyland, P. (2007) The Constitution of the United Kingdom, Hart Publishing
Turpin, C. (2007) British Government and the Constitution 6th edition, Cambridge University Press
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