On Monday 20 November 2023, the British-Luxembourg Society (BLS) and its Patrons and Council held this year's Sir Winston Churchill Memorial Lecture - an annual event featuring eminent speakers from the political, economic and cultural worlds - at St George's International School in Luxembourg-Hamm.
About 250 people attended this prestigious event, which was organised together with the British Embassy in Luxembourg and the Fondation Nationale de la Résistance.
Following the introductory remarks of St George's Principal Dr Christian Barkei and welcome speech by BLS President Darren Robinson, Guy Dockendorf from the Fondation Nationale de la Résistance reflected on the fruitful partnership between his organisation and the BLS on this event over the years. He presented the Fondation and its calls to take seriously the increasing threat of neo-fascism, particularly in Europe today, and reject this, instead pursuing a path of unity and solidarity.
BLS Outgoing President Louise Benjamin then welcomed guest speaker Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond to the stage. Baroness Hale served as President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from 2017 until her retirement in early 2020. She was the second female speaker at this annual event, after Baroness (Margaret) Thatcher in 1979.
Baroness Hale began by thanking the organisers for inviting her to speak "in memory of a great British Prime Minister" - Winston Churchill - who was "a hero to my parents' generation". In her lecture, devoted to "The independence of the judiciary and some of its enemies", she first spoke about problematic statements made by then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the Supreme Court's decision in September 2019 on the "unlawful" prorogation of parliament (in the context of Brexit). Mr Johnson had implied that the government had "[seen] off Brenda Hale and got Brexit done". Baroness Hale described such statements as problematic for several reasons: it was not just her decision, but that of the whole court to rule the Prime Minister's advice to the Queen as "unlawful"; none of the eleven justices were trying to stop Brexit, rather the decision was about "attempts to prevent Parliament from performing its proper constitutional role in the Brexit process"; the then British Prime Minister had also suggested he had ignored the Court's decision - the mere suggestion that the government would ignore judicial decisions it did not like was "extraordinary"; "most shocking of all" was the suggestion that the Prime Minister could remove a judge from office.
Baroness Hale spoke of the then government’s criticism of the prorogation decision at that time, with certain individuals describing it as a "constitutional coup", for example. "This was all very troubling," she said, as it suggested that the government was "among the enemies of the judicial independence". She elaborated on this, citing an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution, which suggested at one point that such attacks on judicial decisions began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There were also concerns that judges had been "exercising more restraint" in recent years to gain the executive's favour. The two main theories for this were that it was a reaction to criticism and threats from the government, or perhaps it was due simply to a change in membership of the Court.
Baroness Hale then raised three questions: What do we mean by the independence of the judiciary? How do we secure it? And why should we secure it? On the former, she noted that independence means that the justice system is "a separate and independent branch of government", which decides disputes between individuals and businesses, enforces criminal law, and ensures the executive branch of government "acts within the powers of the law […] and respects the human rights of everyone within the jurisdiction". To achieve this, impartiality and neutrality are required, and the judiciary should not be corrupt in any sense.
How can this be achieved? Judges must not be afraid to lose their jobs if they make decisions which prove unpopular with the government or other politicians, the media or the public. In the UK, judges have "security of tenure", she noted. However, appropriate pay for judges and sufficient resources for judges and courts are also needed to attract qualified people and allow them to do their job properly.
Why should we want an independent judiciary? Today, this may seem "self-evident", she said, with the separation of judicial power from legislative and executive power being an essential component of a modern constitution. However, objections come from two directions: in authoritarian regimes, courts may be seen as a "convenient mechanism" for enforcing laws - but "the law is still the law"; others argue that the courts are "not sufficiently democratic" but even if UK judges are not elected, they are "an essential element of democratic government and they are accountable". "They have to merit their independence" and in return have to "accept the limits of their role", the guest speaker said.
Baroness Hale concluded by expressing her belief that "the greatest enemy of the independence of our judiciary is the sheer lack of knowledge - among politicians, the media and the general public -about the justice system, what it is and what it is for." She added: "Ignorance and apathy are as much our enemies as malevolence and threats. We must do whatever we can to fight it. I hope and believe that Winston Churchill, that great champion of freedom and democracy, would have agreed."
The in-depth lecture (which expertly addressed serious matters with sensitivity but also humour) was followed by a lively Q&A session, moderated by BLS Patrons Sir Nicholas Forwood KC and Patrick Santer, before attendees headed to nearby Namur for a networking reception.
(L-R): Darren Robinson, BLS President; Patrick Santer, BLS Patron; Baroness (Brenda) Hale of Richmond; Sir Nicholas Forwood KC (Photo credit: Jazmin Campbell / Chronicle.lu)