Category Archives: Law

Statism and Judicial Activism


Statism and Judicial Activism

By Duncan Whitmore

In a previous essay concerning the Supreme Court’s judgment against Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament1, we noted that several commentators had criticised the judgment for its “political” nature, calling for greater scrutiny of the judiciary and the judicial appointments process.

It will be argued here that castigating the case as the moment when the judges crossed over from law to politics is wide of the mark, and that a politicised judiciary is a necessary and unavoidable outcome of the growth of democratic statism. As we shall see, this is a trend which Britain has endured for around a hundred years (with an acute acceleration in the post-war era). Consequently, the only way to ensure a relatively impartial, apolitical judiciary is to roll back the size and scope of the state.

The Judiciary in Political Theory

The state’s power of adjudication receives relatively little attention in everyday political discourse. Nearly all of the headlines are attracted by what the executive and the legislative spheres of the state – Presidents, Prime Ministers, parliaments, and so on – are up to rather than the wigged magistrates presiding over dark, dusty courtrooms.

One reason for this is that the non-judicial state institutions have a greater scope to act unilaterally. The government can announce initiatives and Parliament can enact laws without the need for any outside stimulus. The courts, on the other hand, are in the position of having to wait for a case to come before them, i.e. for people to find themselves in an active conflict with other people. The direct outcome of such a case may impact upon only a handful of participants and, even if the principles under scrutiny are far reaching, the judges may rule only on a single specific point at any one time. Moreover, the prevalence of democracy focuses discussion of your political rights on your ability to vote in elections which, in most cases, is not the method of selection for the judiciary. Participation as a jury member is, to be sure, viewed as a civic duty also, but this may occur only a handful times during a person’s life, and direct involvement in a court case as one of the litigants is even less likely. Thus, the perception that the judiciary has a relatively diminished ability to touch everyone’s lives has lent them a degree of remoteness compared to other organs of the state. Read more

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“A Judicial Jamboree” – Boris and the Supreme Court


“A Judicial Jamboree” – Boris and the Supreme Court

By Duncan Whitmore

Last week’s judgment of the Supreme Court (“Miller/Cherry1) that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful has been greeted as a “triumph” of democracy on the Remain side but, conversely, as an unwarranted judicial wading into politics on the Leave side – together with calls for the scrutiny of judicial appointments akin to what is seen with the US Supreme Court.

It will be argued here that, while undoubtedly significant, the court’s judgment to review the government’s decision for prorogation (and its disagreement with that decision) was not the most extraordinary aspect of the case. As we shall go on see in detail, the case is really an outcome of a continuing, decades-long attempt to squeeze historic, pre-democratic elements of Britain’s constitution into a democratic straitjacket.

What is astounding, on the other hand, is that the robustness and confidence of the decision represents a continuation of the same theme we identified in a previous essay on Brexit and the British Constitution – that the pro-Remain establishment, instead of simply cutting its losses and swallowing Brexit, is blind to the fact that its efforts to thwart the referendum result is jeopardising everything that legitimises (in the eye of the public) the sustenance of the British state. As Sean Gabb has said in his own post on the matter, “all that surprises me is that the Remainers are so committed to stopping Brexit that there is no part of the Constitution they are not prepared to feed into their political shredding machine.” Surely they must have realised the Supreme Court’s decision, delivered without a single dissenting voice among eleven justices in spite of convincing counterarguments, would brazenly and wantonly take a sledge hammer to yet another veneer of legitimacy over the state system that keeps them in power – the notion of an independent and apolitical judiciary? Read more

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Five – Property Rights, Trusts, Unjust Enrichment and Other Considerations


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Five – Property Rights, Trusts, Unjust Enrichment and Other Considerations

By Duncan Whitmore

In this final part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems, we will cover some remaining areas of legal liability and a few miscellaneous considerations before being in the position of sketching a final map of libertarian law.

The Standard and Burden of Proof

In contemporary legal systems the requisite standard of proof differs depending upon the type of action. The imposition of criminal sanction demands that proof of the defendant’s culpability be established beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas civil liability can be imposed by merely the balance of probabilities. The reason for this, presumably, is that criminal sanction is viewed as being a greater incursion of one’s liberty than civil remedies such as furnishing compensation. Not only could one be locked up in prison but one is usually lumbered with a criminal record so that it is impossible to disassociate oneself from the illegal act for at least a period of time. Furthermore, the traditional replacement of the victim by the state in the prosecutorial process of criminal trials is, no doubt, deemed to require stricter due process to protect the individual from persecution by the state.

Much of this is irrelevant from a libertarian point of view. Although we have not discussed in detail the different remedies that flow from criminal liability on the one hand and from civil liability on the other, the enforcement of all laws in a libertarian society risks violating an individual’s liberty if that individual is, in fact, innocent. Taking someone’s money in order to furnish compensation for a tort is as much a physical invasion of that individual’s person and property as locking him away for a crime. Low standards of proof would result in legal remedies themselves becoming de facto breaches of the non-aggression principle. Therefore, in order to legitimise the proposed legal remedy it is likely that only the strictest standards of proof will be accepted by a libertarian legal system – even for tortious as opposed to criminal liability. In other words, the fact of physical invasion, the extent of the aggression and the corresponding intent of the defendant must all be established beyond a reasonable doubt, or some equivalent that the libertarian courts devise. Read more

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Liability for Wrongs


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Liability for Wrongs

By Duncan Whitmore

 

The fourth part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems will explore causative events of legal liability arising from wrongs – that is a breach of some obligation owed by one legal person to another without the necessity of a pre-existing relationship such as a contract.

There are two issues that demarcate the approach of a libertarian legal system towards wrongs as opposed to that of a contemporary legal system. First is the definition of a wrong and second is the standard of liability – that is, the point at which the defendant becomes legally liable for a wrong.

Libertarian Definition of a “Wrong”

In contemporary legal systems, a wrong is some sort of act on the part of an individual that is viewed as being subject to legal sanction. Unfortunately, we have to start off with such a vague tautology as, looking at the variety of acts that are subject to legal regulation, this is about as precise as we can get. In many cases, of course, the wrong will be some form of harm caused by one individual to another which serves as the causative event to generate a legal response.

“Harm” is very broadly defined and can include violent and physical inflictions, such as murder, serious bodily injury, or damage and destruction to property, all the way to more ethereal harms that may include nothing more than speaking one’s mind such as “defamation” and causing “offence”. However, events currently classified as legal wrongs needn’t have a victim at all as the act may either be wholly unilateral or take place between consenting individuals. As an example of the former we can cite nearly all offences related to drug possession and dealing, and of the latter the criminalisation of certain sexual practices owing either to their nature (such as in sadomasochism) or to the gender of the participants (i.e. homosexual intercourse). Basically, it is no exaggeration to admit that a wrong, legally defined, in our contemporary, statist legal systems means nothing more than some act that the ruling government or legislature doesn’t like and wishes to outlaw, to the extent that even quite innocuous behaviour may find itself being subjected not only to legal regulation but to criminal sanction.

As we outlined in part one, no legal liability is generated in a libertarian legal order unless the wrong, or the “harm”, consists of a physical invasion of the person or property of another – in other words, only those actions that violate the non-aggression principle are subject to legal regulation. Read more

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

By Duncan Whitmore

We will begin our survey of the causative events of legal liability in a libertarian legal system with those that arise from consent because, even though people may view “the law” as being synonymous with wrongs such as crimes and torts, consensual legal relations are, in fact, the most frequent types of legal interaction that arise in an individual’s life.

Contract

The predominant form of legal relations arising from consent is, of course, the contract; a person may enter tens of these contracts every single day by, for example, just purchasing a coffee, a bus ticket, or lunch, whereas most people would scarcely commit a single crime in their entire lives (although we might note that today states are happy to spill oceans of ink in criminalising, through legislation, even the most innocuous of actions). While any good legal system must have strong proscriptions against horrific acts such as murder and rape, it is the contract that is the primary preoccupation of everyone’s daily lives.

The first question to consider, then, is what exactly is a contract? Although it should be clear that all contracts concern some sort of bilateral arrangement, different legal systems have varying and often elaborate definitions. Read more

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Two – Self-Ownership and Original Appropriation


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Two – Self-Ownership and Original Appropriation

By Duncan Whitmore

In part one of this five-part series we outlined some preliminary considerations concerning how a libertarian legal system might unfold and develop. We are now in a position to begin exploring the causative events of legal liability in a legal order governed by libertarian prescription.

Prior to considering any specific area of the law such as tort or contract we must explore the ways in which a libertarian legal system will recognise and enforce self-ownership and also the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods.

Technically speaking, the latter topic at least could be covered as part of the law of consent. This concerns the moral imperative that a person should only be liable for the actions that he has undertaken as a voluntary agent – i.e. through his own choice and volition. Both self-ownership and titles over goods allow their owner to not only enjoy the productive services flowing from his body and external goods, but equally and oppositely they burden him with the responsibility of ensuring that, through his actions, those goods do not physically interfere with the person and property of anybody else. Indeed, although law, as understood by libertarians, responds to actions rather than to ownership per se, there is likely to be at least prima facie liability of the owner of property if that property is found to have physically interfered with the person or property of somebody else. Thus, in the same way that it is unjust to physically interfere with someone else’s property, so too is it unjust to hold someone responsible for property that he has not voluntarily asserted control over through his actions. Read more

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part One – What is Libertarian Law?


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part One – What is Libertarian Law?

By Duncan Whitmore

One of the more fascinating but less discussed areas of libertarian theory is how law and legal systems will operate in a libertarian society. To complete such a survey in its entirety would, no doubt, take a lifetime of study and authorship of one or several treatise-length works. We shall, therefore, be placing a very necessary limit to the scope of this survey by concentrating on where, why and how legal liability would arise in a libertarian society – in other words, our primary question will be what are the causative events that trigger legal liability in a libertarian society, and how will legal bodies develop and apply the law in accordance with libertarian principles? We will not be exploring in too much detail the further questions of legal responses to liability such as punishment, retribution, restitution and so on, nor will we be looking into the question of how competing police and civil or criminal court systems might operate (except, as we shall see below, to contrast them to state-based legislative law-making systems). Even though the treatment of the topic of liability alone will still contain many omissions and areas requiring expansion with more detail, we hope to lay the foundations of how libertarian law might operate.

This first part of this five-part series will examine what law is from a libertarian perspective, how different areas of the law can be categorised, and how legal principles will arise in a libertarian society. Part two will investigate how libertarian legal systems will recognise self-ownership and the original appropriation of ownerless goods. Parts three and four will explore the laws of consent and of crimes/torts respectively while part five will deal with some miscellaneous but nevertheless significant considerations. Read more

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