Friday, 1 July 2011

The judicial functions of the Privy Council

See now also this speech by Lord Neuberger JSC

Following my recent general post on the Privy Council, here is some information on the council's judicial functions.

The judicial functions of the Privy Council are exercised by its Judicial Committee.  Strictly speaking, the committee does not take decisions on its own authority, but rather provides advice to the Queen (or, in appeals from Brunei, to the Sultan of Brunei).  It consists of 11 judges, all of whom also serve on the UK Supreme Court.

In principle, the Queen has the right to refer "any... matters whatsover" to the Judicial Committee "for hearing or consideration" [Judicial Committee Act 1833, s.4].  However, the vast majority of the Committee's business consists of hearing appeals from other British and international courts and tribunals.  It hears appeals from the following sources:

Certain current and former Commonwealth countries, namely Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Brunei, the Cook Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Kiribati, Mauritius, Niue, St Christopher and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Tuvalu.

Lord Philips, the President of the Supreme Court, has gone on record as saying that these countries really ought to make their own appeal arrangements (the embryonic Caribbean Court of Justice represents a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to do this).  However, the fact that the Privy Council is independent, effective and FREE means that the nations in question appear to be in no hurry to change the status quo.

The British Overseas Territories, namely Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Monserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, St Helena and dependencies, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The Crown dependencies, namely the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The British sovereign military bases in Cyprus, namely Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

Certain historical and ecclesiastical courts, including the Church Commissioners, the Arches Court of Canterbury, the Chancery Court of York, prize courts and the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports.

This jurisdiction became the subject of controversy in the 19th century: some Anglicans objected to a secular court exercising jurisdiction over church doctrine.

Certain professional disciplinary tribunals, including those for doctors, pharmacists, vets, dentists and opticians.

Disputes under the House of Commons Disqualification Act

The most important constitutional case decided by the Privy Council was Madzimbamuto v Lardner-Burke and George [1969] 1 AC 645, which arose out of the unilateral declaration of independence of "Rhodesia" in 1965.  It is mainly remembered in the UK for its affirmation of the traditional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.