When the Supreme Court won't Hear
3 November 2011
Robert Hazell & Graham Gee's article for the Guardian
Despite commendable openness, we still don't know how and why the court decides to decline to hear two-thirds of applications
Supreme court justices are caught up in a new age of accountability. In their judgments, they increasingly find themselves holding the government and other public bodies to account, as they decide more public law cases. On the other hand, they are often criticised as 'unaccountable' - an example being Michael Howard's reaction to a court challenge to government cuts. In a similar vein, David Cameron said he was 'appalled' by the court's decision about the sex offenders register. The legitimacy of the court was also a factor in the Scottish government's threat to withhold its funding after the decision overturning the verdict in a Scottish murder case.
Does this suggest that the supreme court has an accountability problem? In many ways, our top judges are more accountable than ever. True, they are not subject to 'hard' accountability. They do not have to answer for their decisions in front of political opponents, or lose their jobs if their decisions prove unpopular. They are subject instead to 'soft' or 'narrative' accountability that requires them to explain their judgments and the way the court conducts its business.
For our top judges, it has involved a big change, of practice and of culture. The law lords were tucked away inside the Palace of Westminster, with staff provided by parliament, no proper annual report or accounts, and a minimal website. The supreme court operates under the public gaze. Decisions are easily accessible on the court's website, with summaries for those not legally qualified. The court is televised, with TV streaming hearings and judgments via the Sky News website. Criteria for appointment to the court include the 'willingness to participate in the wider representational role of a justice', by delivering lectures and talking to conferences. Some of the justices have featured in TV documentaries.
The chief executive's annual report and accounts give an account to parliament and the public of its activities and how the court has spent its budget. 'Soft' accountability has fashioned a more transparent court that is much more energetic in giving an account of its judicial business and day-to-day operations, with 238,000 visitors to the court's website last year.
But there are limits to the court's quest for openness. The reasons for refusing permission to appeal to the court remain brief and formulaic. Yet leave to appeal matters, because two out of three applications are refused. Applications for leave are generally considered by a panel of three justices. Some practitioners have called for fuller reasons to be given since this could help avoid futile applications in future. True, the justices consider what information to convey to the parties when permission is refused, but this falls significantly short of the practice in some other top courts. In New Zealand, for example, there is a statutory requirement to give reasons for refusal to grant leave, with these reasons often running to over a page.
Another controversial issue is how the court determines the size and composition of the panels that hear cases. Composition matters, because a panel that decides a case by 3:2 might have come to a different result with a different set of justices. The court sits in panels of five, seven or nine justices. The factors determining how many hear particular cases are unclear (beyond the obvious concerns that panels have relevant expertise, as well as the need to ensure an even workload across the twelve justices). In its first year, the court sat in panels with more than five justices in 18 out of 68 cases (as compared with only three panels with five or more law lords in 2006-2009). As the trend is towards greater use of larger panels, the court needs to clarify the criteria used to determine the size and selection of panels.
The court's decisions extend to many aspects of our lives. In the last two years, landmark decisions have touched on such matters as faith schools, bank charges, prenuptial agreements and control orders. These decisions have far-reaching policy implications, sometimes upsetting the policy preferences of elected politicians. True, parliament can legislate to reverse decisions of the court, and from time to time does so. But, in practice, the buck often stops with the justices. So it matters who they are and how they come to be appointed.
Only the most difficult and important legal questions fall to be decided by the court. There are often no clear-cut answers. Sometimes the law is unclear, and so the justices must choose between competing interpretations. Sometimes there is no law applicable, and the justices expound a new law. Because there are no clear-cut answers, and because different judges are influenced by different views on the judicial role, the identity of individual justices matters. Appointing one person rather than another influences the result of the questions decided by the court.
Under the new appointment arrangements in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 the president and vice-president of the supreme court have an important say, since they are two out of five members on the body which selects new justices. Some have argued that while they should certainly be consulted, they should not be directly involved in selecting other members of the court, lest the court become a self-selecting oligarchy.
Others have suggested involving parliament, with appointees appearing before a parliamentary committee to explain their background and broad approach to judging. MPs are increasingly keen to scrutinise public appointments, with some 60 of the most important now subject to an appearance before the relevant select committee before the appointment is confirmed. But there seems less parliamentary interest in scrutinising the appointment of judges, and most candidates for judicial office recoil in horror at the prospect of a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing. Senior judges like the lord chief justice make regular appearances before select committees to explain the work of the courts, but parliamentary involvement in senior judicial appointments is still seen as a step too far.