What’s so great about flexible policies?

If there were ever a prize for “least examined ground of judicial review”, I would nominate the flexibility rule. The flexibility rule says that administrative policies must be flexible not rigid. The rule is nearly a century old. It’s part of the law of judicial review in England and Wales, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other common law jurisdictions. It’s invoked in case after case. And yet the rule has received hardly any serious scrutiny. Judges rarely question it. Academics rarely write about it.

This neglect extends to the rule’s justification. Take the case of British Oxygen Co v Minister of Technology. The Board of Trade had a discretionary power to make grants for equipment purchases. To manage all the applications it received, the Board made a policy not to make grants for purchases of less than £25. British Oxygen had purchased a lot of oxygen cylinders for £20. The company didn’t quite fit under the policy, but it applied for a grant anyway. The Board refused, and the company went to court, arguing that the Board hadn’t taken into account the particulars of its case. The House of Lords ultimately sided with the Board. But it did so because it believed that the Board had ‘carefully considered’ the company’s application. Had the Board’s policy been rigid, British Oxygen would have won.

British Oxygen is a famous case. It’s probably the leading case on the flexibility rule. Yet the House of Lords never explains the rationale for the rule. So I wonder: what’s so great about flexibility? What’s so terrible about rigidity? What, if anything, is to be said for the flexibility rule? Continue reading

Standing and Civic Virtue

Here’s a puzzle about standing. Suppose you’re a resident of, say, London. You love all things herpetological. You’re even the secretary of the local Herpetological Society (a real thing, by the way). You hear that the local council plans to build a power plant on public land – land which also happens to be one of the few remaining habitats of the endangered smooth snake (also a real thing). Incensed at the threat to the environment, and after duly trying to get the council to change its mind, you seek leave to apply for judicial review of the decision. To succeed, you’ll need to show you have “standing”. The test for standing in England and Wales is a “sufficient interest” in the matter to which the application relates. Other common law jurisdictions have similar tests.

How will a court decide whether you have a sufficient interest in the matter? Continue reading

Standing and the Compositional Fallacy

The Rose Theatre was the sight of the first performances of some of Shakespeare’s plays. The remains of the theatre were unearthed in London in the late 1980s. Shortly after a group of citizens formed the Rose Theatre Trust Company to help protect what was left of the theatre. The Trust asked the Secretary of State to ‘list’ the theatre, which would have given it some protection from development and interference. The Secretary of State refused, however, and the trust applied for judicial review of the Secretary of State’s refusal. In one of the more famous cases in English administrative law, Scheimann J held that trust lacked standing to make its application Continue reading

Mercy and Judicial Review in the Commonwealth

Judges in Commonwealth jurisdictions are increasingly willing to review the executive’s decisions to grant or refuse mercy (ie, decisions to grant or refuse a request for a pardon or remission of a sentence for a criminal offence). Here I want to sketch the developments and mention a few interesting differences and commonalities. I’ll focus on the Caribbean States and India, where most of the action has been.

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Fetters on Prerogative Powers

Suppose you have a statutory power, which you decide to exercise in a certain way from now on, come what may. Maybe your decision takes the form of a policy. Maybe it takes the form of an agreement. Either way, a British or Canadian court would look at your decision very carefully. ‘Fetters’ on statutory powers – ie, commitments as to whether and how to use statutory powers – are lawful only under stringent conditions. Now substitute ‘the Crown’ for ‘you’ and ‘prerogative power’ for ‘statutory power’. Does anything change? Continue reading