Category Archives: Courts and legal issues

Why solicitors should worry about the Draft Wales Bill

This was first published as an article in the Law Society’s Gazette earlier this week, and can be found on its website here

Solicitors could be forgiven for being baffled about Welsh devolution, since it keeps changing. The latest episode started in October when the secretary of state for Wales published a new draft Wales Bill.

The draft bill proposed to put Welsh devolution on a ‘clear and lasting’ basis by delivering a ‘reserved powers’ approach to the national assembly’s law-making powers. The bill also proposed to devolve a limited range of further functions relating to matters such as planning for energy schemes or ports and harbours, and to give the assembly power to determine its own size, electoral arrangements and name. But the ‘reserved powers’ approach is at its heart. Seldom has what looks like a technical legal issue turned out to be more vexed or politically charged.

Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft bill is coming to an end. The Welsh government and national assembly have considered it, and the Commons Welsh affairs committee is finalising its report. But the most detailed, non-partisan scrutiny comes from a major report by a group of lawyers, academics and former officials convened by the constitution unit at University College London and the Wales governance centre at Cardiff University. The report – Challenge And Opportunity: The Draft Wales Bill 2015 – sets out in detail why the draft bill needs to be fundamentally reworked if it is to live up to its promise.

‘Reserved powers’ means that the national assembly would be free to legislate for all matters save those expressly reserved to Westminster. At present, the assembly can only legislate 20 defined ‘subject areas’, including health, education and the environment. Using these powers, it has introduced ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation, looked hard at banning the smacking of children, re-established a body to set wages for farm workers, and is abolishing the distinction between residential leases and licences.

Its powers stretch a long way beyond regulating the public sector, but how far remains legally uncertain, thanks partly to a Supreme Court decision last February. The reserved powers approach is already used in Scotland and Northern Ireland (with modifications). Applying it in Wales would aid legal clarity and bring Wales more clearly into line with the other devolved parts of the UK (making it more straightforward for public lawyers). It would offer significant benefits, if done right. Done wrong, it would make matters worse, not better.

The bill has a number of flaws, but the initial one is simple. It starts by trying to graft the ‘reserved powers’ model on to the existing division of functions between Cardiff Bay and Westminster, without making any significant consequential changes. This has meant limiting the assembly’s powers, in some cases beyond what they are at present. As a result, the assembly could only legislate for matters affecting ‘private law’ – land law, contract and so on – when ‘necessary’ to do so, to give effect to legislation relating to ‘devolved functions’.

The increasing differences in law between England and Wales, which have to be reconciled within the shared legal jurisdiction of England and Wales, would be left to the courts to work out which body of law applies, case by case and ad hoc. All this is to preserve Westminster control of the legal system in general, and the shared legal jurisdiction of England and Wales in particular.

The results would be highly unattractive. The draft bill would result in a hamstrung, ineffective Assembly, which is in no one’s interests. When the assembly cannot act, Westminster would not be able to act either, so Wales would just end up badly governed. Critics may say that it will be a field day for lawyers, but not for many. Litigators might get some work, but others will be left with a complicated task of working out what the substantive rules are and which apply in what circumstances. Ordinary members of the public and small businesses will find it difficult to get legal certainty whenever matters of Welsh devolution arise.

Worse, a tightly constrained national assembly with a complex web of limits on its powers will struggle to make practical law that deals with problems in the real world. The tests the assembly has to pass will be adjudicated by the courts, so judges will have no option but to take an active and recurrent role in the management of Welsh devolution. Effectively, the Supreme Court (which does not have a ‘Welsh’ member) will become the second chamber of the national assembly.

The alternative to this is sketched out in our report. First, ‘necessity tests’ and constraints on devolved legislation affecting private and criminal law must go. Any such test – even a less demanding one, relating to the ‘appropriateness’ or ‘reasonableness’ of legislation – will make the courts key players in Welsh devolution, rather than elected politicians. The assembly needs to be able to use all the mechanisms the law offers to make its legislation effective, including those of reshaping private law and revising the criminal law. On the criminal side, some key offences might be reserved to ensure similarity of the criminal law, but even that creates problems. Reserving the law of homicide is one thing, but assault is another matter, if the assembly is to have the power to decide about banning smacking, for example.

Second, there needs to be a much clearer way to deal with conflicts of law issues – the fact that the law will be different between England and Wales. This could be done by a clear statutory ‘rules-based’ approach, setting down which set of laws applies in which circumstances. Alternatively, it could be done by establishing two distinct legal jurisdictions (of England and of Wales). ‘Distinct’ need not mean ‘separate’.

The same judges would sit, and lawyers practise, in both countries, but would do so in different capacities and would need to deal with different (though largely similar) bodies of law in doing so. Solicitors would be admitted ‘in England and in Wales’, rather than ‘in England and Wales’. Established rules for the conflict of laws would be used to determine what law applied in what circumstances, where there was a conflict. Again, that draws on experiences from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What Wales – and the UK as a whole – needs is what the secretary of state says he wants: a robust, clear and lasting devolution settlement for Wales.  The draft Wales bill is emphatically not it. If enacted in anything like its current form, it would be a horrendous, unworkable mess that would need to be replaced within a few years – perhaps the shortest-lived of the sequence of interim arrangements Wales has had since 1999.

None of that is good news for anyone, least of all legal practitioners.  The way forward is going to involve more change, not less, and needs to be carefully thought through. But it offers the hope of a stable and lasting settlement which will benefit all the UK, not just Wales.

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Launch of report on the Draft Wales Bill

With a number of colleagues from the Constitution Unit and the Wales Governance Centre, I have been working for some time on a major examination of the Draft Wales Bill published in October. This follows our earlier report written over the summer on issues of a ‘reserved powers’ model more generally. We’ve now finished our work and are shortly going to launch our new report, which is entitled Challenge and Opportunity: The Draft Wales Bill 2015. There will be two events – one in Cardiff at lunchtime on Monday 1 February, and one in Westminster late in the afternoon of Tuesday 2 February. Both events are free to attend but registration is necessary.

The Cardiff event starts at 12.30 pm in the Main Hall of the Pierhead. Speakers will be Professor Rick Rawlings from UCL, who drafted the report, Alan Cogbill who chaired the group, and Emyr Lewis of Blake Morgan, another member of the group. Fuller details and registration (through Eventbrite) are here.

The London event will be at 5 pm and takes place in the Wilson Room in Portcullis House, on the Parliamentary Estate Committee Room 6 in the Palace of Westminster. Speakers will include Rick Rawlings, Richard Wyn Jones and myself.  Please allow plenty of time to get through Parliamentary security. Email wgc@cardiff.ac.uk to register your attendance.

UPDATE, 2 February: The report Challenge and Opportunity: The Draft Wales Bill 2015 can now be downloaded from here as a PDF.

 

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A legal jurisdiction for Wales?

This post also appears on the Institute of Welsh Affairs’s blog, ClickonWales, here

The debate about whether there should be a legal jurisdiction for Wales, so that Wales would no longer share a system of law and courts with England, has rumbled on for some time.  Plaid Cymru issued its own paper on the subject in 2010.  In 2012, it was the subject of a consultation by the Welsh Government as well as a major inquiry by the National Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee.  The proposition received a conditional endorsement from the Assembly Committee, which noted the legal differentiation between England and Wales that was already underway and the implications of that for a shared England-and-Wales jurisdiction.  However, the Welsh Government’s enthusiasm for the idea had disappeared by time it submitted evidence to the Part 2 inquiry of the Silk Commission, when it said, ‘While it would not be appropriate to establish a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales now, such a development is very likely in the longer term and action can be taken which would help to ensure a smoother transition to such a jurisdiction in due course.’  More recently, support for a Welsh legal jurisdiction has come from Justice for Wales and from Plaid Cymru.  The relationship of a legal jurisdiction to a ‘reserved powers’ model (an issue that has concerned me since 2005, and previously discussed HERE (my evidence to Silk Part 2) and HERE) means it is now highly topical.

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Plaid Cymru and a Welsh legal jurisdiction

Plaid Cymru is, so far as I know, the only political party in Wales to have taken a position on the issue of a Welsh legal jurisdiction. (The Welsh Government has, but that’s a government not Labour Party matter.)  Responding to the recent WGC/Constitution Unit report, Leanne Wood said such a jurisdiction was ‘essential’.

This is not policy-making off the cuff.  In 2010, Plaid Cymru held an internal discussion about the establishment of a Welsh legal jurisdiction and the form it should take.  As their ‘consultation paper’ from that exercise isn’t otherwise available, and given the developing debate about this issue, with Plaid’s permission I’ve uploaded the paper in PDF format.  The English version is available here, and the Welsh one is here.

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Justice for Wales’s pamphlet on a Welsh legal jurisdiction

The Welsh legal group ‘Justice for Wales’ published its pamphlet on the case for a Welsh legal jurisdiction, and extensive devolution of the legal and justice system, last week.  There’s news coverage of it from the Western Mail here and BBC News here.  I don’t necessarily agree with their arguments (and I’ll have more to say about questions of a Welsh legal jurisdiction shortly), but their ideas certainly ought to be considered seriously.

As Justice for Wales doesn’t have its own website, readers may wish to download their pamphlet from this blog.  The PDF of the Welsh version is here, and that of the English one is here.

 

 

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Making ‘reserved powers’ work for Wales

The debate about a ‘reserved powers’ model for the National Assembly has to be one of the most obscure legal issues to enter public debate.  The basic idea is straightforward: that the powers of the National Assembly should be defined by setting out what it cannot do, rather than by defining ‘subject areas’ where it does have power to pass laws.  The idea is scarcely novel – it was mooted by the Richard Commission in 2004, and repeated by the Silk Commission in 2014 – but it has acquired political legs following the St David’s Day process with all the parties agreeing to adopt it.

A ‘reserved powers’ approach would offer a number of significant advantages.  It would mean that Welsh devolution works in a similar way to that in Scotland and Northern Ireland – important both symbolically and as a way of making it clearer to the public how a devolved UK works.  It also offers a way to resolve the puzzle created by the UK Supreme Court’s jurisprudence about devolution, and particularly its judgment in the reference about the NHS Recovery Of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill, [2015] UKSC 3, by enabling the Assembly to legislate for all matters save expressly those reserved to Westminster.  In broad terms, the Scotland Act 1998 provides a valuable model – not necessarily so much in the list of reserved matters in Schedule 5 as in the provisions of the Act for identifying the scope of those reservations and interpreting them in the courts.   At present, the list of proposed reserved matters suggests a list of matters Whitehall departments do not wish to see devolved, unsupported by any wider rationale or principle.  That is not the right way to proceed when drafting a constitution.  It needs some clearer and stronger basis, rooted in a conception of what the UK needs to do at the centre (and why), and what is best done by devolved governments.

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A ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution for Wales: what should be ‘reserved’?

This post also appears on ClickonWales, the Institute for Welsh Affairs’ blog, here.

Since at least 2004, when the Richard Commission proposed one, there has been significant support in Wales for adoption of a ‘reserved powers’ model – as Scotland and (in a different way) Northern Ireland have.  The call was strongly endorsed by the Silk Commission in its Part 2 report and became UK Government policy with support from all four main parties following the St David’s Day process.  There seems to be an assumption now that a reserved powers model is essentially a technical matter and that the Scottish model can and will be taken off the shelf and applied, with appropriate modifications, to Wales.  That might not be a bad way forward – there’s a good deal to be said for the Scottish legislation, though it’s not a magical way to solve all problems.  But real devils also lurk in the detail of what ‘appropriate modifications’ might be.

What appears to be underway is a process by which Whitehall departments are consulted about what functions they want to see retained, and what they are happy to let go.  The Welsh Government is a marginal player in this process, if it is a player at all, and the Wales Office does not appear to have a strategy to go with its consultation list.  The first fruit of that trawl appeared in the Powers for a Purpose Command paper published in February at the end of the St David’s Day process, as Annex B.

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