Evaluate the extent to which the United Kingdom Parliament is sovereign
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Evaluate the extent to which the United Kingdom Parliament is sovereign. Consider both legal and political factors. Before exploring the extent to which our Parliament is sovereign, one must first understand what Parliamentary sovereignty means. When describing Parliament as sovereign, it means it holds the supreme power - the ultimate source of political authority and the authority to impose and amend laws. In other words our Parliament is sovereign, and it owes obedience to no other. However, there are some limitations on this power that need to be discussed. How far can the United Kingdom Parliament be sovereign, if certain, more specific areas of law or other jurisdictions can overrule it? In this essay I will explore how far Parliament is sovereign, and if there are limitations, what they are and whether they mean Parliament cannot be sovereign at all. There are many arguments that suggest that even from the outset, Parliament had limitations put on it - in other words it was born unfree. The 1707 Acts of Union brought about the Great British Parliament between Scotland and England, many agree that this itself induced limitations on Parliament's Power. This is most strongly argued by JDB Mitchell, TB Smith and Neil MacCormick on two points.1 Firstly, the Acts of Union preceded the new Parliament, and were enacted by two separate entities - the Scottish and English Parliaments respectively which can be regarded as a constitutional act which created and limited Parliament.
A law may have legal force, but if it were inhumane and undemocratic it would perhaps have no political force. The question is could the courts refuse to follow it? Lord Irvine of Lairg has rejected this4, yet it continues to be a topic of debate. One good example is that of a constitutional crisis - the courts may challenge Acts in this case, and perhaps this could lead to other examples of court interference in the future. European Union Law is an important limit on Parliamentary Sovereignty - the European Court of Justice is the highest court in relation to Community matters and would therefore be supreme to our Parliament. This means that Parliament cannot legislate against EU Law, which puts a limit on what Parliament can do. Unless the United Kingdom withdrew, our Parliament would still have to legislate in accordance with EU Law. This highlights another important political point - even though Parliament would be legally supreme, would it be politically acceptable to withdraw from the European Union, and consequently is this limitation of Parliamentary Sovereignty due to a political factor? Furthermore, one could argue that Parliament is still Sovereign in domestic affairs. The Human Rights Act 1998 is another important "political" factor in Parliamentary Sovereignty. It has not been entrenched into our domestic law and therefore courts should not strike down legislation that is incompatible with it.
Secondly, it has been said that Parliament can in fact bind future Parliaments over the composition of the houses, or the means of succession to the throne. This was the Great Reform Act of 1832 whereby the House of Commons was reformed in order to be more democratic. This would bind future Parliaments in that the House would only be lawful if elected in accordance with the 1832 Act.8 This question is a difficult one to conclude, although it can be argued that at every election Parliament changes with the people, and consequently Sovereignty should perhaps apply to the Parliament of the time, otherwise it would be very easy to make irreparable damage to the future democracy of our country (one could keep a particular Parliament in power despite elections). In my opinion, Parliamentary Sovereignty still remains intact, not only in a legal sense but also in a political way too. There have been undoubted erosions in Parliament's power, but how much they affect the doctrine needs to be questioned, for example, EU Law is only supreme in community matters, and holds no baring in our domestic jurisdiction. Furthermore, courts are reluctant to call into question legislation, and in most instances has no power to rule against law, meaning that even politically Sovereignty still exists. This biggest argument is that when Dicey introduced the idea of "Parliamentary Sovereignty" he meant it to be an expressly legal doctrine. In this way Parliament is of course still Sovereign - legally they can legislate on what they wish, whether it has political ramifications or not.
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