David Blackburn

The government has a problem with lawyers

The government’s strained relationship with the Civil Service is a recurring story at the moment. Much of the disquiet seems to be the normal tit for tat exchanges immortalised in Yes Minister. In the main, ministers and their advisors express high regard for their officials.

But there are some resilient bones of contention between the government and its lawyers. Again, this is not unusual. When Gordon Brown was Chancellor, parliamentary counsel were exasperated by his inability to take decisions. Brown’s budgetary machinations were finalised in a predictably mad rush, which incensed those who had to amend the bill hours before it was put to parliament.

However, the growing volume of European and International law is deepening the divide between those who make laws and those who interpret them. This morning’s Independent reports that government lawyers advise that training or assisting the Libyan rebels is illegal. Back in February, the government was told that it would have to honour the ECHR’s prisoner voting judgment ‘even if Britain left the ECHR’. According to a leading barrister in the field, this is due to our treaty obligations to organisations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the IMF. (Crucially, a British Bill of Rights would not supersede those jurisdictions, even if the government were seriously considering its introduction.)

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