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Britain’s legislative incontinence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:03 pm on 8 February, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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Via UK Liberty, I found John Ozimek’s article in the Register, describing the problems the courts are having in keeping up with the law:

Late last year, an appeal in R. v. Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467 was halted at the 11th hour when it turned out that the regulation which the defendant was appealing and under which he had previously been found guilty had in fact been superseded by new law… some seven years previously.

This only came to light when a draft judgment on the case was passed to a lawyer at Revenue and Customs, who spotted the error and instantly alerted the court. Confusion all round, and while the court dialogue didn’t quite match exchanges regularly heard under the jurisdiction of the infamous Justice Cocklecarrot, it is possible to detect prosecution counsel shrivelling beneath the displeasure of Lord Justice Toulson

Echoing recent comments by Lord Phillips, head honcho in our legal system, Lord Justice Toulson blamed this chaos on four factors - first, that “the majority of legislation passed today is secondary legislation”. That is, it is not passed directly by parliament, but is the result of Ministers laying regulations before parliament (statutory instruments).

Then, “the volume of legislation has increased very greatly over the last 40 years”. In 2005 alone, there were “2868 pages of new Public General Acts and approximately 13,000 pages of new Statutory Instruments” – to which should be added another 5,000 pages of European Directives and Regulations, plus the outpourings of our new devolved assemblies.

Assuming a page can be read every 5 minutes, then an MP would have to spend 79430 minutes reading the Acts of Parliament and the SIs for 2005 alone. That’s over 55 days of continuous reading, or over 165 days of reading continuously for 8 hours (almost 30 devoted to the Acts), just to read each of 2005’s SIs or Acts once. How on earth can MPs provide even remotely adequate scrutiny of legislation given such volumes of it to read? SIs of course are given the barest minimum of scrutiny - they cannot be amended, and (at best) there is only one vote in each House to approve them after a 90 minute debate.

The above calculation excludes European Directives and the explanatory notes that accompany Acts of Parliament and SIs. In his book “How to Label a Goat”, Ross Clark notes (on page 239 at the start of Chapter 18) that in the year starting June 1 2005 there were 29 Acts of Parliament, with 3592 SIs. Once you included the explanatory notes for this legislation, you had a total of 100,000 pages to read.

That’s equivalent to over 1041 working days worth of continuous reading. Even if you could reach a page per minute, it’s still over 208 working days of reading. And that’s just 1 year’s worth of legislation and supporting documentation.

And they say ignorance of the law is no excuse.

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