Skip to main content

Commonwealth: Privy Council

Volume 713: debated on Monday 26 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to modify the system of appeals from certain Commonwealth countries to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to modify the system of appeals from certain Commonwealth countries to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

My noble friend will be well aware of the concern that a disproportionate amount of time and resources in the new Supreme Court is spent on these Privy Council cases. There can of course be some ad hoc appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, but the Caribbean court of appeal was designed specifically to replace the Privy Council and its credibility is enhanced by the fact that a British judge and a Dutch judge serve on it. What in my noble friend’s view are the prospects of that Caribbean court replacing the Privy Council for those purposes and what help are the Government prepared to give to the Caribbean Court of Justice to this end?

The amount of time spent on Judicial Committee cases and the question of deciding which judges are to sit on those cases are matters entirely for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, in his dual capacity as chairman of the board of the Judicial Committee and president of the Supreme Court. We certainly have no reasons to discourage the Caribbean Court of Justice—indeed, we have reasons to encourage it. It was set up in 2005, and countries that previously sent their final cases to the JCPC have chosen to use that court in its place. That is absolutely a matter for them and, as I said, we do nothing to discourage it.

I declare an interest as a practitioner on the Judicial Committee and, indeed, as having had the privilege in July last of appearing in the final case to be heard in Downing Street after 170 years. Does the Minister agree that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has for more than 100 years protected the people of colonial countries and former colonies and that in particular it has been instrumental in the interpretation of constitutions, the protection of human rights and, absolutely essentially, the independence of the judiciary in those countries?

Yes, I agree with the noble Lord. That is exactly what the Judicial Committee has done over a very long period. Countries where Her Majesty is the head of state, UK colonies and the Crown dependencies are entitled to retain this right of appeal to the Judicial Committee as the final court of appeal. The essential point is that it is absolutely a matter for them whether they choose to continue to do so.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that many of the cases heard by the Judicial Committee have involved the imposition of sentences of death on defendants in criminal cases? Will the Government consider whether it is really appropriate for British judges to continue to participate in proceedings that involve the sentence of death and thereby to validate a sentence that is rightly regarded by this country as both degrading and inhumane?

My Lords, I am grateful for the question. The judges who sit on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council do so as privy counsellors and their task is to rule on the law of the individual country involved. The noble Lord is right that they sometimes have to make difficult decisions with regard to the death penalty. As long as this system continues—and we have no intention of changing it—that is a role that the judges must take on themselves.

Is the Minister aware that the Caribbean Court of Justice is grossly underfunded and that this impacts on the quality of the decisions? Are the Government prepared to look again to see what resources could be afforded until the court finds the proper level at which to dispense justice similar in quality to that of the Privy Council?

I am grateful to my noble friend. I did not know that it was considered that the court was underfunded and I shall take that back to the department.

Can the Minister tell me the exact process by which a country decides? I recall clearly when all cases in Australia came from the Privy Council but now they are all done in Australia. Did that decision come from this end or the Australian end?

My Lords, the answer to that question is easy. The decision would have come from the Australian end. It is absolutely a matter for the independent country itself to decide whether it wants to use this provision.

As the noble Lord will know, I have sat in many appeals from Caribbean and other countries that used to have an appeal to the Privy Council. I never understood that in sitting on those appeals I was in any sense validating the death sentence. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that I was trying—successfully, I hope—to apply the law of the countries in question.

I thank the noble and learned Lord for the role that he has played over many years and all those who continue to do that valuable job.

Can my noble friend tell me whether, in doing exactly what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, has said about looking at the law of the country, the committee has upheld the death sentence in those countries since it was abolished in this country?

I do not know the figures, but I suspect that the answer is that the committee has upheld the death penalty in certain instances. I am sure that, on the other side, there have been occasions when it has allowed an appeal against such a sentence.

In overseeing and checking on the quality of justice in Crown dependencies and overseas territories, does the Ministry of Justice or do other aspects of Her Majesty’s Government play a more active role than simply waiting for court cases to come to the Judicial Committee?

We have to be very careful here. Many of the countries involved with the JCPC are proud, independent countries with their own judicial system. Largely because of tradition and history, they happen to choose to have their senior appeal court in this country. The Ministry of Justice and the Government generally have to be very wary indeed about interfering in the legal systems of other countries.

My Lords, is it not the case that, when jurisdictions have gone not to the Privy Council but to the Caribbean court, the death sentence has much more often been upheld? Will my noble friend use every pressure that he can through diplomatic means to encourage other jurisdictions to do away with the death penalty?

In my personal view—not that that matters—and in the view of the Government, the death penalty is not a proper sentence for any offence.