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The Rule Of Lawyers

This year’s BBC Reith Lectures were delivered by former Supreme Court justice (and sometime medieval historian) Jonathan Sumption. His topic, ‘law and the decline of politics’, could not be more, well, topical. Less than three years ago, Sumption himself participated in the Supreme Court’s eight-to-three decision in Miller v Secretary of State, the case that sent Brexit back to parliament for a vote. Sumption was in the majority in that case, and although his Reith Lectures focused on the threats that activist courts pose to democracy, he did not see Miller as an example of judicial overreach. As he argued in the Q&A period following his final lecture, Miller didn’t assert the superiority of the courts. It affirmed the sovereignty of parliament.

Throughout the lectures, Sumption argued that courts should apply laws, not make them. He wants to see political questions decided by politicians, not judges. He thinks that the European Court of Human Rights has vastly overstepped its mandate by wading into areas that should be the preserve of democratic decision-making. He also criticises his former Supreme Court colleagues for being too ready to legislate from the bench. He even argues that human rights ‘cannot be above legitimate political debate except in a totalitarian state’.

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“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”

— Winston Churchill, in Parliament, 1947