The Malta Marriage Equality Bill: a further comment

This blog post is by Justin Borg-Barthet.

My earlier comment on the Maltese Marriage Equality Bill has prompted some discussion, including in an article in Sunday’s Times of Malta. In that article, Silvan Agius – a Maltese champion of LGBTIQ rights – responded on behalf of the Government of Malta.

Let me begin by identifying the common ground between that response and my own legal assessment. Mr Agius and I agree that a dynamic reading of fundamental rights law requires the elimination of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. This includes the right to marriage.

Equally, we agree that same-sex relationships should not, at law, be treated as asexual relations any more than should different sex relationships.

Contrary to his reading of my own argument, we also agree that foreign models should not be adopted blindly. Comparative law requires a critical approach to both/all relevant legal systems.

Our disagreement concerns the methods employed to achieve equality. This is a border skirmish between friends (literally and ideologically), not a fundamental dispute concerning the dignity and liberty of individuals.

‘Government could not blindly reproduce [Scots] law’

I have no brief to defend or promote Scots law. Indeed, Maltese law is, in some respects, more progressive. By way of example, civil unions are gender neutral in Malta, whereas civil partnerships are open only to same-sex couples in Scotland.

Mr Agius was setting up a straw man when he stated that Malta could not ‘blindly reproduce’ Scots law’. Nowhere was this suggested. Maltese and Scots law are substantively different and require different solutions. Legal transposition should not, in principle, constitute ‘blind reproduction’.

Furthermore, the stated reasons for rejecting the Scots law model are far from persuasive. Mr Agius’ explanation rests on two limbs, both of which are unsound.

The first limb of his argument is that ‘in Scotland, England and Wales, gay marriage was regulated by distinct laws.’ This is neither here nor there, and indeed is not entirely accurate. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 amends the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 with a view to opening the earlier Act up to same-sex couples. The appearance of a lack of consolidation is simply a function of different legal traditions.

Furthermore, nowhere do I argue that “non-consummation should not be a ground to annul a same sex marriage”. If I had, I would indeed have been arguing “that same sex marriages are not on par with heterosexual marriages”. Mine was a criticism concerning a lack of definition. Indeed, the position in Scotland – contrary to Mr Agius’ contention – is that the notion of consummation simply is not addressed in its own right for couples of either gender-mix. The problem does not arise in the same manner.

Again, I do not suggest that this should be the position in Malta. I am simply arguing that the Maltese position is unsound. Consummation has a specific meaning which should either be changed for all couples or adapted for same-sex couples.

I was also somewhat surprised to read the Maltese government’s claim that ‘Scots law was consulted extensively’. Extensive consultation should include deep engagement with reports and consultations conducted abroad, not mere skimming of the surface. Had the Maltese government indeed consulted Scots law extensively, they would have been aware that sex was not ignored at all when marriage equality was adopted.

Far from homosexual sex being taboo, the subject was debated in some depth with a view to identifying adequate solutions. It was agreed that superimposing established opposite-sex norms concerning impotency simply could not work. This required careful consideration of sexual interactions, as opposed to sweeping this fundamental dimension of married life under the carpet, as has been done in Malta.

The decision was made to defer discussion concerning impotency for different sex couples, but to adopt a more liberal approach for same-sex couples. This was not because the legislator shied away from the reality of homosexual relationships, but because the legal ramifications had been carefully considered.

Now, Mr Agius is right to note that this has been subject to some criticism in Scotland, but it does not follow that the Maltese solution is adequate. Indeed, by retaining impotence as a ground of nullity unchanged for same-sex couples, Malta is simply choosing discrimination in practice for the sake of political sloganeering.

Abdication of Parliamentary responsibility: “The law courts will have to take into account the new realities and adapt the law to them”

The Maltese Government claims that the decision not to distinguish between the organic interactions of same-sex and different sex couples stems from a desire to preserve the unity of marriage. Yet the government response to my earlier comment contradicts this claim.

Mr Agius states that the courts will determine the meaning of impotence and consummation, in the same manner as they have done for different sex couples. If the intention is for marriage to be the same, then how will the courts reconcile the meaning of established terms with different organic realities of different sex couples? This is either a backdoor change to established definitions for different sex couples – which does not appear to be the intention of Parliament – or, it is an admission that different and same-sex couples simply cannot be regulated in the same manner.

Secondly, Mr Agius’ argument is a quite extraordinary admission that Parliament intends to leave a lacuna in the law which it expects the courts to address. To put it mildly, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to the separation of powers. It is for Parliament, not the courts, to deal with the finer detail of family law policy.

But Mr Agius’ suggestion also misses a fundamental point about judicial legal development.   To the extent that courts did in fact elaborate the meaning of impotence and consummation for opposite sex couples, they had a wealth of comparable international experience on which to rely. Marriage law in Malta is, after all, derived from ecclesiastical sources. In contrast, same-sex relationships will not benefit from much international experience.

Furthermore, where there is international precedent, this is not necessarily relevant because regulation of same-sex relationships, novel as it is, differs from one jurisdiction to another. Indeed, Malta’s major parent legal systems, namely English common law, French civil law and Italian law, now regulate marriage quite differently to the contemporary Maltese approach. International precedent is simply unavailable, and Maltese same-sex couples will therefore have to rely on courts which lack the critical mass to develop solutions as predictably as one might expect.

Concluding remarks

Effectively, then my earlier suggestion that same-sex couples will be subjected to a lack of legal certainty, and in some cases to costly (both financially and emotionally) litigation remains sound. Indeed, it is implicitly confirmed by the Maltese Government that this transfer of the burden of regulation is intended by the legislator.

I remain of the view, therefore, that the Maltese legislator should engage more carefully with ongoing legal developments and consult in a greater spirit of openness. This will enable the better fulfilment of the declared aims of the legislation. It may also enable the legislator to address other unintended consequences, such as the discriminatory treatment of conversion of civil unions and marriages (while civil unions may become marriages, existing marriages cannot be converted to civil unions – a somewhat regressive approach – but more on that later…).

Malta Sunday Times

When non-discrimination is discriminatory: A Comment on the Maltese Marriage Equality Bill

This blog post is by Justin Borg-Barthet. It was originally posted on ‘Manuel Delia’s notes’, a Maltese political blog. It is re-posted here (with minor amendments) with kind permission.

Through the Marriage Equality Bill, Malta joins a small group of European nations which have both met and exceeded the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of the elimination of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. It is particularly noteworthy that this development has met with the approval of all parties in the Maltese Parliament. This has not always been the case in other jurisdictions.

Malta also differs from its peers, however, in that it appears that political expediency has resulted in laws which have not been as carefully crafted as one might have hoped. Scots law on marriage equality, for example, developed following extensive public debate, with the benefit of significant academic input, and through careful legal drafting. The law is therefore clear, and same-sex couples are as aware of their rights and obligations as their different sex counterparts.

While Maltese law is driven by a dynamic, narrow human rights agenda, this appears to have occurred to the detriment of careful consideration of family law matters. Like the Civil Unions Act 2014 before it, the Marriage Equality Bill superimposes a heterosexual model on same-sex relationships. This is intended to achieve equality of rights, but in some cases results in a poor fit, to the detriment of same-sex couples. I will highlight two examples below, namely impotence and consummation.

Impotence

The lack of consideration for differences between heterosexual and same-sex models is most evident in relation to matters pertaining to sexual relations. In particular, the Maltese Marriage Act 1975 provides that a marriage shall be void ‘if either of the parties is impotent, whether such impotence is absolute or relative’. There is no distinction in the Maltese Bill between same-sex couples and couples of different genders.

This is to be contrasted with Scots Law, as well as the law of England and Wales. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014, for example, provides as follows:

For the avoidance of doubt, the rule of law which provides for a marriage to be voidable by reason of impotence has effect only in relation to a marriage between persons of different sexes.

The exclusion of impotence as a ground for nullity in same-sex relations in Scotland is motivated by the different realities of same-sex and different sex couples. The relevance of the stipulation that impotence is a ground for nullity is plain for spouses of different genders. After all, the provision was designed with them in mind.

For same-sex partners, however, it is not necessarily the case that impotence as traditionally understood is relevant to both, or indeed either, partner. Suffice it to note that intercourse between two women differs from that between a man and a woman. Similarly, intercourse between two men does not necessarily require both men’s bodies to function identically. Maltese law does not account for this.

Consummation

Equally problematic for same-sex couples is the regulation of consummation of marriage in Malta. This too differs from Scots law. In Malta, the absence of consummation within three months may result in annulment. Article 19A(1) of the Maltese Marriage Act 1975 provides as follows:

A valid marriage may be annulled at the request of one of the spouses on the grounds that the other party has refused to consummate the same.

It is especially unclear what constitutes consummation between two women, or indeed whether it is possible in the sense the law intended. Nor is it entirely clear what is meant by consummation for male couples. One might assume that penetration by one spouse of the other should constitute consummation. But it is equally arguable that one spouse could seek to annul the marriage where penetration occurred by one party but was ‘refused’ by the other.

All that is certain is that same-sex couples cannot be certain of the validity of their marriages.

Concluding remarks

The likely legal fallout could have been avoided given the successful foreign legislative models and external expertise available to the Maltese legislator. It is regrettable that it is precisely those whose rights were to be furthered who will suffer from a lack of foresight.

The resulting legal uncertainty will, of course, have no effect whatsoever on different sex couples. The law is clear in their regard. Contrary to arguments raised in the Maltese Parliament, to distinguish between different and same-sex couples is the very antithesis of discrimination. Maltese law discriminates by failing to account for differences. Same-sex couples in Malta are rendered vulnerable to a lack of foreseeability as to the meaning of the law.

It is the same-sex couples purportedly protected by identical treatment who are in fact vulnerable to a lack of certainty. It is same-sex couples who are vulnerable to spousal abuse arising from a lack of clarity in a marital contract in which the parties’ rights and duties are undefined. And it is same-sex couples who will have to suffer the emotional and financial burden of litigating points of law which the legislator appears not to have considered.

Legal Analysis: Factually Analysing Theresa’s Tough Talk on Terrorism, ‘Disruptive and Investigatory Powers’ and Human Rights.

This post is by Dr Phil Glover.

The recent tragic upsurge in terrorist activity in England has been accompanied by significant media and social media hyperbole. Stripping away the regrettable politicking and naked electioneering underpinning this is part of the exasperated academic lawyer’s job.

This short piece outlines and comments on current UK law as it stands surrounding one particular Theresa May statement made shortly after the dreadful terrorist murders in Manchester and London:

‘I’m clear: if human rights laws get in the way of tackling extremism and terrorism, we will change those laws to keep British people safe.’

Examples of the hyperbole that followed include the Guardian headline May: I’ll rip up human rights laws that impede new terror legislation and the Express headline I’ll ditch human rights laws to KICK OUT jihadis, says Theresa May in fight against terror. Election fervour meant the Prime Minister’s ‘if’ relating to ‘human rights laws’ became a manifesto-esque commitment to rip them up or ditch them.

We dull law scholars (I’m speaking for myself) prefer facts proven by evidence. A fundamental rule of evidence is that oral evidence tendered by the original source carries more weight than hearsay tendered by third parties. Hence the reason Theresa’s original statement is reprinted above. What she said was that ‘if human rights laws get in the way…’ not that they do.

For legal analysis purposes however (that’s what we do at Aberdeen), we firstly ask, ‘What laws tackle extremism and terrorism?’ We then ask, ‘What did Theresa May mean by ‘human rights laws?’ The legal question can then be framed as, ‘Do human rights laws get in the way of counter-extremism and counter-terrorism laws?’ A final question might then be, ‘Can Theresa May change human rights laws?

UK law ‘tackling extremism and terrorism’

If students were asked in an examination question along the lines of, ‘Describe the UK legislation that tackles extremism and counter-terrorism’, a good answer would be lengthy. Successive UK Governments since at least the era of IRA terrorism and the pre-internet incitement to hatred and violence era have generally been voted in on the back of tough political rhetoric about tackling these issues. This has seen an exponential mutation in the legislative frameworks regulating counter-terrorism, surveillance/information acquisition and prejudice-crime prevention. An examination-standard ‘statute by statute’ exposition is inappropriate for this forum, but thankfully the recent useful work of ‘jargonistas’ means that these huge State national security resources can be summarised as ‘disruptive and investigatory powers’ and ‘hate crime’ measures. The debatably equally useful ‘Transparency’ agenda also means that summaries of the relevant frameworks can be found in the Home Office, Disruptive and Investigatory Powers Transparency Report 2017.

It is somewhat surprising to law scholars to read of even an inference from a long-serving Home Secretary and latterly Prime Minister that human rights laws might ‘get in the way’ of terrorism legislation. Such legislation has largely been subject to robust independent review since 1978 and this has been enshrined in statute since 2005.

Although not explicitly tasked with assessing the tensions between ECHR considerations and counter-terrorism provisions, it is unthinkable that any of the senior legal counsel appointed to the role thus far has not advised successive governments and Home Office personnel as to where the correct balance requires to be struck. No independent reviewer has ever received public criticism from any government of any persuasion in this regard.

Indeed, such was the reputation for independence and quality of advice provided by David Anderson QC (Independent Reviewer between 2011 and 2017) that he and his team were additionally asked to review (and now continue to review on a statutory basis) UK surveillance legislation following the 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures. His 2015 report ‘A Question of Trust’ was universally acclaimed and informed the drafting of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA). There is no little irony in the fact that this Act constituted a ‘transparent’ consolidation, expansion and entrenchment of all the previously disparate and occasionally secret state surveillance powers that Snowden et al sought to roll back. There is further irony in the fact that the IPA 2016 (heartily sponsored and endorsed by Theresa May) faces a significant legal challenge on the basis that it disproportionately infringes ECHR rights, yet may now constitute part of the counter extremism and counter-terrorism framework she feels is constrained by human rights considerations! This may be because of the nascent (and somewhat ill-informed) policy of attaching blame for terrorism and extremism on internet service providers, despite the existence of huge internet surveillance powers in the IPA 2016 and its inherent compelled compliance requirements placed on those companies controlling communications infrastructure.

Counter-terrorism and extremism legislation is reinforced by CONTEST, the UK Government Counter-terrorism Strategy (available here).  It is extremely difficult to see how, in legal terms, any aspect of UK human rights legislation impedes this use of ‘soft power’.

UK ‘Human Rights laws’

Law students at Aberdeen soon become au fait with the factual reality of the UK being a signatory to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR] which, since October 2000, has legal effect in the UK via the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). This requires that ‘so far as it is possible to do so, [UK] primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights’. Where it cannot be so read, declarations of incompatibility may be made.

This generally means that UK residents can potentially rely on the UK courts to protect their individual rights, and where disruptive and investigatory powers (discussed above) such as the infamous, post 9/11, Anti-Terrorism, Crime And Security Act 2001 (ATCASA) section 23 (powers enabling indefinite detention of terrorist suspects) are brought to judicial review, as in A & Others v Home Secretary (2004), UK courts have not held back from doing so.

Yet sections 3 and 4 of the Human Rights Act are open to potential criticism in that they deal with a retrospective approach to ensuring that UK law, as enacted, complies with the ECHR. Indeed the example above meant that the ATCASA 2001 had been in place for three years before the House of Lords declared s23 incompatible. Politicians behind the enactment of such powers (like Mrs May) might therefore feel justified in criticising the HRA for enabling the retrospective undermining of their parliamentary sovereignty and legislative scrutiny (other public law student favourites) as part of the separation of powers.

Closer scrutiny of the HRA however, shows that it also places a prospective approach to Parliamentary procedure, in that section 19 mandates (without exception) a Minister of the Crown in charge of a Bill passing through both Houses of Parliament, before second reading of the Bill, to (a) make a statement to the effect that in his view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the Convention rights (“a statement of compatibility”); or (b) make a statement to the effect that although he is unable to make a statement of compatibility the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.

On the surface therefore, given Theresa May’s roles in successive Governments since 2010, she has presided over the enactment of all counter terrorism and counter extremism legislation in that period, all of which has been signed off as human rights compliant in accordance with the HRA 1998, s19. Only surveillance legislation has been subject to significant retrospective human rights challenges from the privacy and civil libertarian lobby and this on the basis that, despite her Government signing the pre-Act Bill off as ECHR compatible and it receiving Royal Assent, the final Act infringes ECHR rights such as Article 8. There has never been a challenge on the reverse basis, i.e. that human rights considerations actually impede the efficacy of an Act of Parliament.

I am not alone in finding no evidence whatsoever that human rights laws in any way get in the way of UK measures (statutory or otherwise) to counter extremism or terrorism. Given the strong chance of success of a legal challenge seeking to roll back some of the powers within the IPA 2016 on the basis of EU jurisprudence to date, only a fool would consider altering the single human rights law we have (the HRA 1998) to somehow ensure that counter extremism or counter terrorism powers can bite harder. Brexit means Brexit, but the UK remains in the ECHR. Mrs May appears no fool in the eyes of academic scrutiny, but although her remarks quoted herein may undoubtedly have been embellished by others for their own purposes, she may yet come to feel somewhat foolish for having made them in the first place. Politicians attack the laws they themselves drafted and enacted at their peril.

Burkini Ban: Violating both facets of religious freedom

This blog post is by the undergraduate LLB (Hons) candidate Shanardra Fadhilah. It is based on the presentation she gave at the recent Lawyers Without Borders conference hosted at the University of Aberdeen, which she was selected to give after winning a competition amongst her fellow students.

Take a deep breath and focus on your thoughts. At your core, what guides your actions? Your moral compass? Your conscience? The values instilled in you since young? For a lot of people these all fall under one umbrella – religion. It serves as a compass for the right and wrong, a conscience to guide them through the grey area and a set of values to uphold throughout life.

Religion continues to be fundamentally important in society. Hence why it is still maintained as a human right – a right one has for simply being human. As a human right, freedom of religion is enshrined in various international instruments, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two international human rights covenants (on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights) as well as Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In the mentioned instruments, freedom of religion is captured as a 2-dimensional right that may be exercised alone and in community with others. The first aspect speaks of the right to freely choose one’s own religion. This is absolute in nature and cannot be circumvented. The second aspect is the right to manifest religion, which on the other hand can be limited. Even so, rule of law requires the limitations be necessary and legitimate. The main reasoning for the constraint is because the right to manifest religion bleeds into the public sphere. In order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of others, this limitation is needed so that human rights do not conflict with each other.

But as with most things, a simple categorical division on paper does not accurately reflect the reality. Religion is not something that is only practiced in private or can be separated from the public sphere. This is reflected in the second strand of religious freedom: the right to manifest religion. However, the fundamental freedom to choose one’s religion is intrinsically connected with the right to manifest it. A person chooses their religion because they agree with its teachings and want to practice it. Thus, it follows that the right to choose one’s religion is only as useful as its right to manifest it.

Religious manifestation includes religious expression, which is where religious clothing stems from. This brings us to the issue at hand: the burkini ban in France.

In 2016, mayors in about 30 French coastal resorts banned the burkini. Although not expressly stated, the clothing banned is indicative of a burkini and mainly target female Muslims who wear them in beaches. In late August of last year, the Council of State held that the ban in one of the towns was a serious and manifestly illegal attack on fundamental freedoms. Local authorities could only curb individual freedoms if there was a “proven risk” to public order. Significantly, it was ruled that, “the emotion and the concerns arising from terrorist attacks” was not legally sufficient to justify a ban.

While this ruling may set a precedent for the other French towns, which have implemented the burkini ban, after the ruling some mayors have said they would refuse to lift the decree. There are several arguments put forward in favour of the ban. The burkini is allegedly an affirmation of political Islam in the public space and incompatible with the French concept of secularism. Furthermore, it is argued that the ban will allow for social and cultural integration; ultimately, serving to empower women.

A similar development is the burqa or face veil ban in France that was introduced in 2010. It makes it illegal for a person to conceal their face in a public place. This has also been criticised as targeting Muslim women. In the case SAS v France (reported at (2015) 60 EHRR 11) the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban and accepted that the French are seeking to protect social interaction between people.

But, at a closer glance, this argument is actually counterintuitive. How does criminalizing a deeply significant form of religious clothing serve to improve social interaction when it will only further segregate them from society as they opt not to go to public spaces?

Furthermore, note that the ‘margin of appreciation’ allowed for the qualified right to manifest religion displays that the different national contexts require for varying implementation of the right. If we extract this line of reasoning – we can apply it to the conception of human rights in general.

Why do we so easily ignore the fact that there are various frameworks for human rights and favour the ‘universal’ conception? Setting aside pragmatism for a moment, it seems strange that Court allows for a wide margin of appreciation for enforcement of the right to manifest religion but no consideration is given to the different cultural conceptions of human rights. This is significant because the different conceptions result in different understandings of human rights. It is connected to the degree of importance attached to the right to religious manifestation and expression by various faiths that is not reflected in most international human rights documents.

These stances against specific styles of dressing are not at all uncommon. When you look at the development of society, there were various cases when the introduction of novel fashion trends have been met with opposition as it does not fall in line with the societal values of the time. But this current move in Western culture towards wearing as little clothing as possible being equated to the emancipation of women is misleading as empowerment actually comes from choicenot a certain style of dressing.

For Muslim women, it is the act of dressing modestly which reflects their choice to submit to Islam. This is the root for wearing the burkini. It is a cultural interpretation of modesty as mandated by religion. So when this dress is banned – the consequences are not only literal but transcends to the constraint of the fundamental exercise of the religion. It is the criminalisation of being a Muslim woman who wants to go to the beach but also maintain her modesty.

Essentially, here the State is enforcing how strictly a woman can follow their religious teachings. The state has criminalized a form of religious expression and in doing so constrained the overall religious freedom in general. Religious clothing is highly important to Muslim women who choose to manifest modesty in such form. The burkini ban was enacted to respond to the terrorist threat in France. But placing the blame for such terrorist attacks on the whole Muslim community, especially the female Muslims does not make sense. Human rights should not be curbed discriminatorily – let alone as a method to punish a large group of people for the actions of a few.

Syrian Refugees in Europe: what’s happening?

The following is the text of remarks made by our Dr Justin Borg-Barthet at a panel discussion organised by the Aberdeen University Yad’am Society on 6 February 2017.

Introductory remarks

To begin with, it is worth considering why we in Europe should be concerned about the Syrian refugee crisis.  Syria, after all, is not a European state and Syrians do not traditionally consider Europe to be their most immediate cultural hinterland.  It is arguable, therefore, that Syria and Syrian refugees are not European problems.

But let’s be clear that since the end of the Second World War, at least, we have all embraced the principle of a common humanity.  This is not merely a political statement, but is a principle entrenched in international law – like the 1951 Refugee Convention – and in the human rights law of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In the spirit of a broader humanity, I will not confine my comments to matters solely pertaining to the Syrian crisis.  That crisis is simply the most recent in a series of developments which have seen the European Union fall short of its humanitarian and human rights obligations in respect of refugees and asylum seekers.  It illustrates, in stark terms, an ongoing systematic and systemic problem in the EU’s relations with its neighbourhood.

In these brief remarks, I will address two main points.  First, I wish to highlight a failure to comply with obligations.  Secondly, I will consider briefly the constitutional policy implications of this failure, and make modest recommendations about how the Union could seek to address persistent problems.

Humanitarian and human rights obligations

EU human rights law has come a long way since the first steps towards European integration in the 1950s.  This is most clearly seen in recent judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) regarding relocation of asylum seekers.  In the NS case, Afghan asylum seekers in the UK were to be returned to Greece, which was their point of entry into the EU.  Under the Dublin Regulation, Greece was responsible for processing the asylum claim.  It was found, however, that the applicants’ right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment would be at risk due to systemic problems in Greece.  It followed that the UK could not return the asylum seekers.

The decision of the CJEU is, of course, to be applauded.  It demonstrated a shift in emphasis from the rights of states to those of individuals.  However, that judgment did nothing to alter the facts on the ground for most asylum seekers in Europe.

Reception conditions

Greece, Italy and Malta are the main ports of entry for refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and further afield.  Each of those states has been found to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights due to their inadequate treatment of refugees (e.g. M S S v Belgium and Greece (2011) 53 EHRR 2; Aden Ahmed v Malta ECHR App No 55352/12 (23 July 2013); Hirsi Jamaa v Italy (2012) 55 EHRR 21).  In particular, reception conditions have been found to breach the prohibition of the right to liberty (due to forced detention) and, consequently, the prohibition of torture (due to the adverse effects of detention on mental health).

The problems in these three states are compounded by the fact that they bear the brunt of responsibility for dealing with migration to the EU.  Whatever lofty declarations are made in the north and west of Europe, and despite images of hundreds of people trekking across a continent, the fact remains that pressures are concentrated in a small number of member states, which brings us to another problem of so-called burden sharing.

Burden sharing

A number of EU member states have long argued that there should be a system of compulsory burden sharing.  In other words, the responsibility for hosting and processing asylum seekers should be shared between the Member States rather than being concentrated in border-states.  The Geneva Convention arguably requires burden sharing as a matter of international law.  EU law itself is founded on the principle of solidarity between states and people.

But still, wealthier states which are geographically insulated from the crisis have resisted compulsory burden sharing.  Instead, they initially accepted a voluntary system.  Latterly, a system of agreed relocation has been put into place, but the Member States have been very slow in taking any practical steps to ensure that pressures are distributed.

This is important to member states which face significant financial and social burdens.  And because of those burdens, it is also important to asylum seekers.  No member state is able single-handedly to accommodate and welcome the numbers that have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  In the absence of collective action, asylum seekers remain vulnerable to the inadequacies of ill-equipped states.

Relocation to third countries

Following repeated failures in seeking compulsory burden-sharing within Europe, southern EU member states have changed their strategies.  Rather than advocating relocation of asylum claimants within the EU, they have successfully argued for the externalisation of problems through so-called reception centres in Turkey and Libya.  An agreement with Turkey is now fully operative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with supporting Turkey in its own efforts to provide reception to migrants, or in discouraging dangerous sea-crossings.  But the fact is that, for all the failures of EU member states, the treatment of asylum seekers in Turkey and Libya leaves far more to be desired.

You may recall that I mentioned the judgment in NS earlier.  In that case, it was decided that Member States could not return migrants to other EU States if there were systemic problems in the destination state.

There is no logical reason why that principle should not be applied between the EU and third countries in the same manner as it is applied within the EU.  Fundamental rights, after all, bind the member states whether they are acting unilaterally or collectively.  The principle of non-return in the judgment in NS should preclude the return of asylum seekers to Turkey.  Yet, just last week, the informal council meeting in Malta concluded that the Turkey agreement should be replicated in Libya.  Far from questioning the strategy, the Member States are seeking instead to entrench and extend it to ever more questionable destinations.

Tellingly, humanitarian corridors were not addressed in the council conclusions, but were determined to be a matter for the future.  We will deal with that once we have secured the border.  Now where have we heard that before?

Constitutional observations

The refugee and migrant crises expose cracks in the institutional architecture of the European Union.  There has been a consistent failure to act according to constitutional principles due to the stranglehold that the member states hold over law and policy-making processes.  If they refuse to act, the Union’s principles are meaningless in practice.  While the EU rightly baulks at President Trump, its own record of treatment of refugees has not been pristine.

Of course, it is difficult for the Union and Member States to act when public opinion is unsupportive.  But let’s not forget that public opinion is divided.  It is far from unanimous in its opposition to migration.

And there is equally a great danger in failing to uphold and defend principles.  If constitutional principles are not upheld, this lends an air of legitimacy to the ideologies that are threatening the EU’s collective model itself.  By reducing the stranglehold of states, and focusing instead on representation of people and rights of people, the Union could ensure that collective action remains possible, and that it is given further effect in future.

In other words, far from the answer being less Europe; far from the answer being the dismantling of Schengen; and far from the answer being border fences between states; the answer is a more principled Europe – a more meaningful European Union that is capable of acting internationally in accordance with its founding principles.

Dr Borg-Barthet is the co-author (with Carole Lyons) of an analysis article in the 2016 Edinburgh Law Review. ‘The European Union Migration Crisis’ is currently the ‘Most Read’ article online.

yadam-syria-poster
The poster for the recent event hosted by the Yad’am Society

The debate about the justification of constitutional review: six theses

This blog post is by Dr. Tamás Gyorfi.

Introduction

The justifiability of constitutional judicial review is one of the perplexing questions of constitutional theory. Every generation of constitutional lawyers has struggled with the issue without being able to provide knock-down arguments that would have settled the controversy. In the UK, the adversaries of the two positions are (for better or worse) called political and legal constitutionalists, respectively. Since almost all public law textbooks cover this controversy, the debate is familiar to every undergraduate law student in the country. All this suggests that there is hardly a more hopeless enterprise in constitutional theory than to make a new contribution to this debate. Nonetheless, in my new book, titled Against the New Constitutionalism, I endeavoured to tackle exactly this issue.

My book develops a liberal defence of political constitutionalism and argues that in consolidated democracies, the strong form of judicial review cannot be justified. It is for the readers to judge whether I managed to provide a sufficiently unique combination of arguments and carve out a distinctive place in the political constitutionalist camp. The aim of this post is not to summarise my arguments or convince the reader that political constitutionalism has the upper hand in the controversy. Rather, I would like to put forward a few theses about the nature, the state and the relevance of the debate.

The debate about constitutional review has both an academic and a more popular version and there is a huge discrepancy between the fortunes of the two rival positions at these two levels. The discourse seems to lose its momentum at both levels, albeit for very different reasons. In the academic discourse, many people feel that everything that can be said on the issue has been already said. The debate seems to have reached an impasse, where people with different intuitions reach different conclusions. By contrast, in the more popular version of the controversy, legal constitutionalism has almost conclusively defeated its opponent. As a result of this, virtually every democracy has introduced some type of constitutional review.  As Alec Stone Sweet correctly registers, “As an overarching political ideology, or theory of the state, the new constitutionalism faces no serious rival today” (Stone Sweet 2000, 37). I will address the academic and the popular versions of the discourse in turn.

Thesis One: we can still make progress in the debate

Since the topic has generated a voluminous literature, it is not implausible to argue that the prospects of progress in the debate are rather dim. So can we expect any new insights from further debates?

My answer to this question is an emphatic yes. Let me explain the reasons for my optimism. The justification of constitutional review certainly requires the mobilisation of some fundamental political principles and it is indeed true that a lot has been said about those principles. However, I believe that the proponents of the so-called “institutional turn” are straightforwardly correct in claiming that the argument about constitutional review cannot be won by appealing purely to political principles. Political principles alone are incapable of determining whether we should confer the authority to specify abstract human rights provisions on courts or legislatures (or we should share that authority between the two institutions). The debate about constitutional review is both about political principles and institutional capacities. To assess the capacities of institutions, we need sophisticated theories about the epistemic performance and motivations of our decision-makers.

Those who are sceptical about the possibility of progress in the debate must hold either that (1) such institutional considerations are irrelevant or that (2) new research cannot result in significant progress in the study of institutional capacities. However, it seems to me that the first claim is simply wrong and the second one is unsubstantiated. Contrary to the second thesis, I believe that Adrian Vermeule is right to claim that our understanding of institutions’ capacities is still rather rudimentary (Vermeule 2003, 3).

Thesis Two: doctrinal legal scholarship is (almost) irrelevant for the debate

Above I made the rather cautious and safe claim that when we tackle the justifiability of judicial review, institutional analysis matters. Now I want to make a much stronger and much more controversial claim.

In a slightly exaggerated and provocative form the claim says that doctrinal legal scholarship is irrelevant for the purposes of the debate.

The role of institutional analysis is to say something about which institutions will produce the best outcomes under certain circumstances. Human rights lawyers engage in a rich discourse about what constitutes the best outcome in rights-related issues. Should assisted suicide ever be made legal? Under what conditions is affirmative action justified? Should an employer accommodate its employees if they want to wear religious symbols?

I have a huge respect for those scholars who engage with these types of questions. I myself have strongly held views on many of these issues and consider myself a participant in this discourse. However, the problem is that in most complex constitutional issues, like the ones mentioned above, competent constitutional lawyers will disagree. In a pluralistic society, in such cases, we are unable to provide conclusive arguments as to what constitutes the correct outcome. Institutional analysis should, therefore, be limited to general epistemic, motivational and procedural considerations. Is the diversity of a decision-making body more important than the ability of individual decision-makers? To what extent is the decision-making of our institutions distorted by self-interest? Which procedure is the most conducive to producing good outcomes? For instance, what is the right balance between transparency and secrecy in a decision-making environment? These questions are very different from the ones that I mentioned above and are not doctrinal in their nature. Constitutional lawyers whose primary expertise is related to doctrinal issues are, therefore, not the best qualified to answer such general institutional questions.

Thesis Three: the debate must be contextual

Although championing contextual analysis generally seems a safe methodological bet, it is far from self-evident that we need such an approach here. Many of the available argumentative strategies claim that judicial review is justifiable/unjustifiable across the board, regardless of the specific features of a political system. If someone believes, for instance, that the lack of democratic legitimacy is, in itself, a decisive argument against judicial review, then she must claim that judicial review is unjustifiable everywhere. If, by contrast, someone believes that the interpretation of human rights is primarily a technical legal exercise, she must hold that judicial review is always justified, provided that human rights themselves are justified.

However, it might be the case that: (1) although the set of relevant arguments is the same everywhere, their strength will differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; and (2) the relevant arguments pull in different directions. In that case, one might conclude that constitutional review is justified in certain countries but is unjustified in other ones. I argue in my book that both of the aforementioned conditions are met. Both of the adversaries in the debate have strong arguments, and the strength of at least some of these arguments is not constant but depends on the particular features of the political system in question. One could argue, for instance, that the political process has malfunctions everywhere in the world, but these malfunctions are clearly not equally severe in each political system. If there are strong arguments on both sides, it does matter how severe these malfunctions are and this factor might be decisive in the overall balance of arguments.

Thesis Four: tertium datur

The debate about judicial review usually pitches the legislative body or the elected branches in general against courts or a specialised constitutional court. In that binary framework, an argument against one of the institutions is automatically treated as an argument for the other. This binary framework fits well with many argumentative strategies that are used routinely in the controversy. If, for instance, the lack of political accountability is a conclusive argument, the issue is settled: in that case, constitutional review cannot be justified. Similarly, if the protection of human rights is understood as a technical legal issue, the superiority of courts will be beyond doubt and the justifiability of constitutional review is difficult to challenge.

When we form an overall judgement about the justifiability of judicial review, we have to consider both process-related and outcome-related reasons. Some of the latter can be classified as epistemic, others as motivational arguments. In my book, I argue that we do not have strong epistemic arguments to justify judicial review. The strongest argument of legal constitutionalism is motivational rather than epistemic. Even the most ardent opponents of judicial review would have to admit that the political process has many blind spots. Let us suppose that this motivational argument outweighs all the objections made by political constitutionalists. In the binary framework, this would imply that judicial review should be considered justified. However, once we give up the binary framework, it becomes clear that the arguments against the normal political process do not automatically support judicial review.

The argument that relies on the malfunctions of the political process suggests that the main asset of the judiciary in the interpretation of human rights is its independence. But independence is not unique to the judiciary. I also argue in my book that legislatures are superior institutions to courts in epistemic terms so far as the specification of human rights are concerned. What gives them an edge in this comparison, is their greater cognitive diversity. I do not expect the readers of this post to accept my empirical claim about legislative bodies. However, they might accept that (1) cognitive diversity is a crucially important epistemic asset; (2) courts are very far from the ideal of an epistemically diverse institution; (3) independence is not unique to the judiciary. If these conditions are met, it is at least conceivable that a third institution combines independence and cognitive diversity better than a constitutional court.

Thesis Five: the debate can shape the future of weak judicial review

The above four theses have focused on the academic debate. However, since in most jurisdictions the power of specifying the meaning of abstract human rights has already been conferred on courts, one could ask whether the debate matters any more. Let me offer two reasons to support my affirmative answer.

Although most contemporary democratic states now subscribe to the strong form of judicial review, the constitutional review of many consolidated democracies still deviates from the paradigmatic examples of that institution, like the US Supreme Court or the German Constitutional Court. The New Commonwealth model of judicial review, well-known to comparative constitutional lawyers, represents one important deviation from the reigning paradigm. I argue in my book that the deferential judicial review of the Nordic countries should also be classified as a distinctive subcategory of weak judicial review. What gives the debate practical relevance is that these deviant forms of constitutional review are under immense institutional and intellectual pressure. Although in the New Commonwealth model legislative bodies have the final say in matters of constitutional law, they very often follow automatically the courts’ interpretation of constitutional rights. We cannot rule out the possibility that this practice solidifies into a constitutional convention and with time the ‘final say’ becomes a mere formality, like royal assent being applied to British legislation.

In the Nordic countries, courts tended to exercise their power with extreme self-restraint. Judges disapplied a legal provision only if it was manifestly in conflict with the constitution. This requirement of manifest conflict has been recently removed from the Swedish constitution and is also under attack in Finland. More importantly, the supervisory role of the Strasbourg court is inconsistent with the internal logic of both the New Commonwealth model and the deferential judicial review of the Nordic countries. The upshot is that political constitutionalism still has some strongholds in mature democracies but the judicial review of these countries is at a crossroads. Political constitutionalism can and must make an intellectual case for preserving the distinctive constitutional traditions of these mature, first-wave democracies.

Thesis Six: the debate is relevant for the secondary allocation of decision-making authority

It is an undisputed fact that in most countries the authority to specify the meaning of human rights provisions has been conferred on courts. However, we should keep in mind that the establishment of judicial review does not determine once and for all how courts can and will exercise their powers. Let me call the initial decision whether to establish judicial review the primary allocation of decision-making authority, and the fine-tuning of how this power should be exercised the secondary allocation of decision-making authority.

For instance, the Human Rights Act 1998 has fundamentally changed the British constitutional landscape by moving away from the traditional understanding of parliamentary supremacy. However, the Act requires fine-tuning. The question about the proper grounds and extent of judicial deference is one of the central issues of British public law today. The Act defines what the Parliament may do when a court issues a declaration of incompatibility. However, it leaves open what the legislature should do if that happens. Although the secondary allocation of decision-making authority is less dramatic than the primary one, it raises, nevertheless, many important questions. Therefore, we need a theory that guides the secondary allocation of decision-making authority and this theory will naturally draw on the arguments about the justifiability of judicial review.

Conclusion

My book is a plea for both institutional conservativism, and institutional experimentalism. On the one hand, the fifth thesis of the foregoing analysis suggests we should regret if the distinctive constitutional traditions of mature, first wave democracies are lost. I am not against significant reforms or giving human rights a more prominent place in those legal systems. However, moulding them into the uniform template that legal constitutionalism offers is something that we should regret.

On the other hand, my book is also a plea for institutional innovation and radicalism. Even if legal constitutionalists are right to claim that the normal political process has inherent blind spots and malfunctions, if cognitive diversity is as important as I think it is, I find it hard to believe that we strike the best balance between the relevant motivational and epistemic considerations by conferring the authority to specify abstract human rights on a fairly homogeneous judiciary.

Comment

“I have read Dr Gyorfi’s excellent book which as its name suggests is a full on attack on the supremacy of judges advocated by the New Constitutionalism. The attack is primarily theoretical but it is supported by empirical evidence. It is a brilliant vindication of why mature democratic societies should leave the last word on difficult, contested issues to legislatures rather than courts. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how sophisticated democracies should structure their governance.”

Professor Paul Beaumont, School of Law, University of Aberdeen

Further “Critical Acclaim” is available online, as follows:

“Gyorfi’s book has the rare virtue of combining a refreshing theoretical intervention to the old – but ongoing – debate about the legitimacy of judicial review of legislation with a critical examination of different institutional attempts to balance democracy and human rights. It is a must-read for both constitutional theorists and comparative constitutional lawyers.”

Joel Colon-Rios, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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