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Ultra Vires and the Foundations of Judicial Review

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2009

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There is a growing literature concerning the role of the ultra vires doctrine and its place within administrative law. For some the doctrine is the central principle of administrative law, without which judicial intervention would rest on uncertain foundations. For others, it constitutes at best a harmless fiction, which is incapable of explaining all instances of judicial intervention, and at worst a device which allows the judiciary to conceal the real justifications for developments in judicial review. Christopher Forsyth falls into the former camp. He has written a vigorous defence of the ultra vires principle, contending that “it remains vital to the developed law of judicial review”. The purpose of this article is to contribute to the debate on this issue by putting the opposing view. The article will be divided into four sections.

Copyright © Cambridge Law Journal and Contributors 1998

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1 Wade, & Forsyth, , Administrative Law (7th ed., 1994), p. 41Google Scholar; Forsyth, , “Of Fig Leaves and Fairy Tales: The Ultra Vires Doctrine, The Sovereignty of Parliament and Judicial Review” [1996] C.L.J. 122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Oliver, , “Is the Ultra Vires Rule the Basis of Judicial Review?” [1987] P.L. 543Google Scholar; Craig, , Administrative Law (3rd ed., 1994), pp. 1217Google Scholar; Sir John Laws, “Illegality: The Problem of Jurisdiction”, in Supperstone, and Goudie, (eds.), Judicial Review (1992), p. 67Google Scholar; Woolf, Lord, “Droit Public-English Style” [1995] P.L. 57Google Scholar at 66.

3 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 122.Google Scholar

4 Ibid. pp. 127–129.

5 My own views on this topic can be found in “Sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament after Factortame” (1991) 11 Y.B.E.L. 221 and “Public Law, Sovereignty and Citizenship”, in Blackburn, (ed.), Rights of Citizenship (1993)Google Scholar, chap. 16. Further development of these ideas can be found in “Three Conceptions of Sovereignty” forthcoming.

6 R. v. Bolton (1841) 1 Q.B. 66.

7 Brittain v. Kinnaird (1819) 1 B. & B. 432.

8 Anisminic Ltd. v. Foreign Compensation Commission [1969] 2 A.C. 147.

9 R. v. Lord President of the Privy Council, ex p. Page [1993] 2 A.C. 682.

10 Craig, , Administrative Law (3rd ed., 1994)Google Scholar, Chap. 10.

11 See, e.g., R. v. Commissioners for Special Purposes of Income Tax (1888) 21 Q.B.D. 313; Colonial Bank of Australasia v. Willan (1874) L.R. 5 P.C. 417; Page [1993] 2 A.C. 682.

12 It is, moreover, even more difficult to conceive of intervention in this area being based on legislative intent determining the limits of validity if the courts employ a functional as opposed to an analytical sense of the term “error of law”. See generally, Beatson, J., “The Scope of Judicial Review for Error of Law” (1984) 4 O.J.L.S. 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 “Illegality: The Problem of Jurisdiction”, in Supperstone, and Goudie, (eds.), Judicial Review (1992), Chap. 4.Google Scholar

14 Sir Stephen Sedley, “The Common Law and the Constitution”, in Nolan, Lord and Sedley, Stephen Sir, The Making and Remaking of the British Constitution (1998), p. 16.Google Scholar

15 The same point can of course be made about other developments which have occurred in judicial review. For example, the expansion of the head of jurisdictional error cannot plausibly be explained by changes in legislative intent which occurred at the time of the decision in Page [1993] 2 A.C. 682.

16 “Law and Democracy” [1995] P.L. 72 at 79.

17 [1969] 2 A.C. 147.

18 [1993] 2 A.C. 682.

19 Craig, , op. cit. n. 10Google Scholar, Chap. 15.

20 On some occasions the courts will justify this by reference to the supposed intent of the relevant parties; on others, they will impose the relevant obligation without reference to the parties' intent, see generally, Oliver, D., “Common Values in Public and Private Law and the Public Private Divide” [1997] P.L. 630.Google Scholar

21 Oliver, , op. cit. n. 2.Google Scholar

22 It should be pointed out for the sake of clarity that this method of dividing Christopher Forsyth's argument is mine and not his.

23 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, pp. 129133.Google Scholar

24 Staatpresident en andere v. United Democratic Front en ‘n under 1988(4) S.A. 830A.

25 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 131.Google Scholar

26 See, Wade, H.W.R., Constitutional Fundamentals (1980), p. 66Google Scholar, stating that Parliament's attempts to exempt public bodies from the jurisdiction of the courts is tantamount to giving them dictatorial power and is a constitutional abuse of power by Parliament; that judicial control over discretionary power is a constitutional fundamental, akin to an entrenched constitutional provision, p. 68; and that it ought not to be left to Whitehall to say how much judicial control will or will not be tolerated, p. 70.

27 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 133.Google Scholar

28 Kruse v. Johnson [1898] 2 Q.B. 91; McEldowney v. Forde [1971] A.C. 632.

29 R. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p. Leech [1993] 4 All E.R. 539.

30 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 136.Google Scholar

31 Loc. cit.

32 The relevant case law can be found in Craig, , op. cit. n. 10Google Scholar, Chap. 10, fns. 33 and 34.

33 Madame Justice L'Heureux-Dube, “The ‘Ebb’ and ‘Flow’ of Administrative Law on the ‘General Question of Law‘”, in Taggart, (ed.), The Province of Administrative Law (1997), 308330Google Scholar; Craig, “Jurisdiction, Judicial Control and Agency Autonomy”, in Loveland, (ed.), A Special Relationship: American Influences on Public Law in the UK (1995)Google Scholar, Chap. 7.

34 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 124Google Scholar

35 Craig, , “Constitutions, Property and Regulation” [1991] P.L. 538.Google Scholar

36 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 125.Google Scholar

37 Craig, “Public Law and Control over Private Power”, in Taggart, (ed.), The Province of Administrative Law (1997), pp. 196216.Google Scholar

38 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 126.Google Scholar

39 Ibid. p. 134.

40 Ibid. p. 135.

41 Loc. cii.

42 [1993] A.C. 682.

43 Forsyth, , op. cit. n. 1, p. 123.Google Scholar

44 [1969] 2 A.C. 147.

45 [1993] A.C. 682, 701.

46 Ibid. p. 702F.

47 Henderson, , Foundations of English Administrative Law (1963)Google Scholar; Rubinstein, , Jurisdiction and Illegality (1965)Google Scholar; de Smith, , “The Prerogative Writs” [1951] C.L.J. 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar and “Wrongs and Remedies in Administrative Law” (1952) M.L.R. 189; Jaffe, and Henderson, , “Judicial Review and the Rule of Law: Historical Origins” (1956) 72 L.Q.R. 345.Google Scholar

48 (1615) 11 Co. Rep. 93b.

49 Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47, pp. 4658.Google Scholar

50 (1615) 11 Co. Rep. 93b, 98a.

51 Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47, pp. 6162.Google Scholar Italics in the original.

52 The observations are attributed to Lord Ellesmere, although Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47. p. 70Google Scholar, questions whether he was indeed the author.

53 The quotation can be found in (1615) 11 Co. Rep. 93b, 98a in. B.

54 Prohibitions del Roy (1607) 12 Co. Rep. 63; Case of Proclamations (1611) 12 Co. Rep. 74. For a discussion see, Craig, “Prerogative, Precedent and Power”, in Forsyth, and Hare, (eds.) The Golden Metwand and the Crooked Cord (1998), 6590.Google Scholar

55 (1762) 3 Burr. 1265, 1267.

56 Cooper v. Wandsworth Board of Works (1863) 14 C.B. (N.S.) 180.

57 Henderson, , op. eit. n. 47, pp. 7778.Google Scholar

58 Coke, , The Fourth Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (1648), p. 71Google Scholar, cited by Henderson, , op. eit. n. 47, pp. 7071.Google Scholar See also, Jaffe, and Henderson, , op. eit. n. 47, p. 361.Google Scholar

59 Henderson, , op. eit. n. 47, pp. 7172.Google Scholar

60 Op. cit. n. 47, p. 362.

61 (1643) March N.C. 196.

62 Ibid. p. 197.

63 Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47, p. 112.Google Scholar

64 (1700) 1 Ld. Raym. 580.

65 (1700) 1 Ld. Raym. 454.

66 Ibid. p. 469.

67 Craig, , op. cit. n. 2Google Scholar, chap. 10; Rubinstein, , op. cit. n. 47Google Scholar; Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47.Google Scholar

68 See above, pp. 65–66.

69 Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47, pp. 126127.Google Scholar

70 (1643) March N.C. 196.

71 (1733) 2 Barnard K.B. 207.

72 See above, n. 11.

73 See above, n. 5.

74 In the law of tort see, e.g., the economic torts which place limitations on the legitimate scope of competitive activity in the market place or the way in which the courts have limited the volenti doctrine so as to render it inapplicable where real free choice is not available. In the law of contract see, e.g., the common law rules which condition the acceptability of exemption clauses, or the rules concerning illegality which relate to the restraint of trade doctrine. In the law of restitution see, e.g., doctrines such as duress. On some occasions, limits are rationalised by reference to the supposed intent of the parties, on others the courts will openly impose the limits. It is of course the case that Parliament could overrule common law norms created by the courts related to private law. This does not alter the point being made in the text: neither the courts, nor writers seek to deny that some of these controls are common law creations in the manner described above.

75 Constitutional Fundamentals, op. cit. n. 26, p. 70.

76 See above, pp. 71–75.

77 (1610) 8 Co.Rep. 107.

78 Gough, , Fundamental Law in English Constitutional History (1955), pp. 4345.Google Scholar

79 Jaffe, and Henderson, , op. cit. n. 47, p. 362.Google Scholar

80 “Human Rights: A Twenty-First Century Agenda” [1995] P.L. 386.

81 See above, nn. 2 and 14.

82 Constitutional Fundamentals, op. cit. n. 26, pp. 66, 68, 70–71.