The Constitution Unit


The Regency Acts: What happens if the King becomes so ill that he can no longer work?

Information about the legal provisions which apply if the King loses the capacity to work.

The British Monarchy: FAQs

What does it mean for a King to postpone public-facing duties but continue to undertake state business and official paperwork?

In February 2024, Buckingham Palace announced that the King would postpone his public-facing duties but continue to undertake state business and official paperwork following a cancer diagnosis.

This means that the King will continue to fulfil his essential constitutional functions like granting royal assent to laws, appointing ministers and other senior officials and holding audiences with the Prime Minister in private, but he will not appear at events or carry out royal visits in public. 

This does not mean that Prince William will act as Regent. As of 6 February 2024, it also does not appear that the King has felt it necessary to appoint Counsellors of State to carry out any of his constitutional functions. Counsellors of State might in future need to be appointed to deputise for the monarch during periods of temporary incapacity. An example was when  Prince Charles (as he then was) and Prince William were asked by Queen Elizabeth to preside at the state opening of Parliament in 2022: formally they were appointed as Counsellors of State to enable them to do so.

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What if the King is temporarily incapacitated?

The Regency Act 1937 created the office of Counsellor of State to cover short term absences where a regency would be unnecessary. If the King cannot undertake his official duties on a temporary basis due to illness, two or more Counsellors of State are appointed by Letters Patent to act in his place.

The Counsellors of State are Queen Camilla and the next four people in the line of succession over the age of 21: Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Beatrice. Princess Anne and Prince Edward were also empowered to act as Counsellors of State again by the Counsellors of State Act 2022, since Prince Harry and Prince Andrew are no longer ‘working royals’, and Princess Beatrice has never been one. So from the formal pool of seven potential Counsellors of State, there are only four who are likely to be chosen: the Queen, Prince William, Princess Anne and Prince Edward.

Counsellors of State are authorised to carry out most of the official duties of the Sovereign, for example, attending Privy Council meetings, signing routine documents and receiving the credentials of new ambassadors. However, certain core constitutional functions may not be delegated:

  • The King's role as monarch of the other Commonwealth Realms
  • The dissolving of Parliament, except on the King’s express instruction
  • The creation of peers
  • Appointing a Prime Minister.
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What happens if the King becomes so ill he cannot work?

The Regency Act 1937 also established in law a procedure for determining the incapacity of the sovereign due to infirmity of mind or body. When a declaration of incapacity is under the Regency Act, a regency is established and the royal functions are transferred from the sovereign to the next in line of succession, namely Prince William the Prince of Wales.

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Who decides that the King is incapable?

The people who can make a declaration of incapacity are the Sovereign’s spouse, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls, and Speaker of the House of Commons (as of February 2024, these are the Queen, Alex Chalk MP, Baroness (Sue) Carr, Sir Geoffrey Vos and Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP).  Any declaration of incapacity needs to be signed by three or more of them. Declarations need to be supported by evidence including medical evidence.

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How is a regency publicised?

The declaration of incapacity needs to be made to the Privy Council and communicated to the governments of the realms, the 14 other countries where the British monarch is also head of state.

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Would William automatically become Regent?

The new Regent must take the oaths required by the Regency Act, and cannot discharge any of the royal functions until the oaths have been taken before the Privy Council. The oaths are as follows:

I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to King Charles III his heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.

I swear that I will truly and faithfully execute the office of Regent, and that I will govern according to law, and will, in all things, to the utmost of my power and ability, consult and maintain the safety, honour, and dignity of King Charles III and the welfare of his people. So help me God.

I swear that I will inviolably maintain and preserve in England and in Scotland the Settlement of the true Protestant religion as established by law in England and as established in Scotland by the laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right, and particularly by an Act intituled "An Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government" and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights, and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.

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Can a regency be ended?

If the sovereign recovers capacity, the regency can be ended by a declaration of cessation of incapacity.  The procedure is the same as for a declaration of incapacity, with the same signatories, the same requirement of medical evidence, and the declaration being made to the Privy Council.

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What if William himself loses capacity?

A declaration of incapacity can also be made with respect to the Regent. If the Regent becomes incapable of discharging the royal functions, the same group of signatories are empowered to make a declaration of incapacity.

The requirements are also the same: the incapacity of the regent must be attested by evidence; the declaration needs to be signed by at least three of the signatories; and it needs to be lodged with the Privy Council. So long as Prince George, the person next in line of succession, remains under the age of 18, Prince Harry (as the next adult in the line of succession) would become Regent until Prince George reaches the age of majority.

Prince Harry would not be capable of being a Counsellor of State or Regent if he were not domiciled in the UK. However, domicile is a legal concept and different from being resident. Prince Harry is currently resident in the US, but until he forms an intention permanently to reside there, his domicile will remain his domicile of origin, which is the UK. So long as Prince Harry remains domiciled in the UK, he continues to be eligible to serve as a Counsellor of State and Regent; but he would have to return to the UK to do so.

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Is there a half-way house, a soft Regency?

What if King Charles is seriously infirm, but not so incapacitated that he is incapable of performing the royal functions: could there be a soft Regency? This would leave certain core functions with the sovereign, and delegate everything else. The King alone would signify royal assent to Bills; and the King would continue – on advice – to make statutory appointments. Much else could be delegated to other members of the royal family, above all Prince William who could become a sort of de facto regent.

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What functions would a soft Regent perform?

As Prince Charles did during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince William could preside at the state opening of Parliament; lead on Remembrance Sunday; and Trooping the Colour. He already takes investitures.  He could take over the diplomatic business of receiving incoming and outgoing ambassadors, and state visits, as Prince Charles did when attending the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda in 2022. This had been happening for a while in the latter years of the late Queen’s reign: in 2013 it was the Prince of Wales rather than the Queen who held an audience with the incoming and outgoing heads of MI5.

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