“written constitutions do not happen by accident”

“written constitutions do not happen by accident”

Adam Tomkins – Public Law

Alongside its “inescapably political” nature (Adam Tomkins), the contours of our ‘constitution’, and hence its abiding ‘regimes’ of Administrative and Public Law, have always been highly ‘contested’ (Mark Elliott), and nowhere is that aspect of our legal/political life more apparent than when we focus on the ‘codification’ debate.

From Montesquieu and Voltaire, through Bagehot to the the fictitious Mr. Podsnap our ‘supposed’ constitution has hitherto (or so the British would want to believe) attracted a great deal of admiration but with recent (post June 23 2016) events at the forefront of all commentators minds, it would not be stretching the point to say that said ‘admiration’ has been/is being tested if not shadowed by as Dicey put it that “dark saying” of De Tocqueville . [A ‘supposed-ness’ that “forced from De Tocqueville, in a moment of irritation, the impatient aphorism that there is no constitution in England: “elle n’existe point”].

With a constitution cobbled together by what Sidney Low (The Governance of England 1908) once called ‘tacit understandings’, the question on everyone’s lips has to be what happens (to paraphrase Low) when “those understandings are no longer understood”.

‘Constitutional reform’ is once again very much in vogue and as such it is inevitable that the very question this essay poses is once more centre stage.

It is not a new question and as with all lego-political conundrums it is arguable from both sides; “deservingness cannot be determined a priori” to quote Dominic Grieve.

“Unnecessary and unjustifiable” on the one hand; “long overdue” (in the name of ‘certainty’) on the other; with both sides (most likely) acknowledging the need for reform, yet it would seem disagreeing fundamentally as to how that change is to be secured.

Vernon Bogdanor has long argued that the case for ‘codification’ is an intellectually strong one (mainly focussing on certainty) but nonetheless it still involves negotiating, and more importantly ‘justifying’ negotiating, Hume’s (is-ought) guillotine; whilst others (Low and Tomkins) amongst them have suggested that in fact the differences between written (codified) and unwritten (un-codified) constitutions is much exaggerated, an argument that may give weight to the ‘business as usual’ (as opposed to ‘radical reform’ argument). But why if Tomkins is correct would the decision to ‘codify’ (as put forward by Gordon Brown PM in his Governance of Britain 2007 Green Paper) be any more ‘radical’ than simply effecting those changes through the more familiar (to the British) process of ‘incremental change’.

Bogdanor once again has the (or at least an) answer; captured in his pithy aphorism: “what the Queen in Parliament enacts is law”.

At the core of the British constitution is the notion of Parliamentary sovereignty; and this in and of itself is in tension with any ‘project’ that may be advanced to ‘codify’ what he once called our ‘indistinct, indeterminate, and unentrenched’ constitution; regardless of the type of codification (be it a ‘lawyers’ constitution’ as per India or a ‘peoples’ constitution as per USA) adopted.

Different from Bentham’s fears of ‘ancestor worship’ (inevitable to a degree) this is not exactly a small detail. A codified constitution by its very nature, to a degree supplants Parliamentary sovereignty (witness the very different roles of the 1689 Bill of Rights (essentially asserting the rights of Parliament against the king) and its American equivalent). And if Miller/Santos [2016] is anything to go by (with both sides attempting to make use of Parliamentary sovereignty to buttress their Article 50 claims) it is less than clear that the time has arrived where such a radical departure from our constitutional tradition has yet arrived; in spite of the turmoil that has ensued following the unexpected referendum outcome.

This shifts the paradigm.

So much has been made of the ‘constitutional moment’; that quintessential game changing set of events (be it war/revolution/independence) that sets the scene for seismic constitutional reform, but much less analysis has been given to the nature of the impetus, the ‘constitutional momentum’ if you will.

Bogdanor has written extensively about the post-1997 constitutional ‘reforms’ (of which he lists 15 in his 2007 paper “Should Britain have a written constitution”), the constitutional independence of the Bank of England, the rise in the salience of referendums, devolution, electoral reform, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to name just a few; and just prior to the 2015 election he wrote of the “concatenation” of a whole variety of unresolved questions the constitution faces (the English Question/Asymmetrical Devolution/Crisis of Representation) wondering whether a game-changing ‘constitutional moment’ had or had not arrived. Well factor in Brexit and the threat of ‘indyref2’ and surely there has to be enough.

But there’s the rub.

The riposte may well be couched in terms of ‘unnecessary and unjustifiable’ but the key question will (as in all areas where law and politics interface) be, is there adequate political will; enough ‘constitutional momentum’ so to speak.

This takes as back to Gordon Brown. He was an undoubtedly a great thinker and few can doubt Bogdanor’s credentials in this area; but Brown was not a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair. And in this Bogdanor is yet again very near the truth. To effect these kind of changes political will is just not enough any more (if it ever was). You need political ability. Specifically the ability and foresight to not only see the advantages that a codified constitution would bring but the capability of mobilising the ‘populus’ as you attempt to align constitutional ‘form’ with political ‘force’.

It was exactly what Cameron failed to do with regard to Brexit; as he clamoured to play a party political ‘card’ (appeasing the Eurosceptics) at the same time as (unsuccessfully) persuading the nation to vote Remain; never once seeming to connect his endless anti-Strasbourg rhetoric (prisoners’ votes etc.) with the rising pre-Brexit tide.

A constitutional ‘moment’ has certainly materialised but whether it will be enough to tip the balance in favour of a coded constitution remains to be seen. I am rather doubtful.

Parallels have been drawn with the 1830s (which spawned the Great Reform Act) and the first decade of the 1900s (which yielded the Parliament Act 1911). Well we have Theresa May’s Great Repeal Bill to look forward to, and it may be all that we can expect (even deserve) at this stage. If Scotland does finally secede and perhaps even Ireland reunite, it is not inconceivable that then, but only then, in the spirit of ‘damage limitation’ that Gordon Brown’s Charter 88 idea of `not just tidying up our constitution but transforming it’ will finally be taken seriously.

As John Locke established (Two Treatises of Government), though it may be in large part illusory we have an emotional stake in our constitutions, Bolingbroke articulated this in terms of constitutions having ‘values’, ‘goals’ as Tomkins puts it; at least for the time being the British remain attached to the ‘comfort blanket’ of Parliamentary sovereignty. As and (only) when the connection between this essentially anti-constitutional notion, and the escalating executive hegemony the last two decades has witnessed is made, may adequate constitutional ‘momentum’ be found to effect a change that in terms of constitutional ‘certainty’ and true popular democracy is long overdue.

“but for your fault…”

“Although, therefore, mesothelioma claims must now be considered from the defendant’s standpoint a lost cause, there is to my mind a lesson to be learned from losing it: the law tampers with the ‘but for’ test of causation at its peril.”

“But for your fault, it would not have happened” is the characteristically to-the-point way that Lord Denning first articulated the ‘but for’ rule of ‘factual’ causation in Cork v Kirby MacLean [1952]. It’s wide-scale adoption, both across criminal and tort law would suggest that in spite of its rather awkward ‘counterfactual’ construction (on this see: Richard Epstein – A Theory of Strict Liability) at the very least, it has a practical application, and captures something of the everyday way in which we construct notions of ‘causation’ and ultimately ‘culpability’ in our lives. But factual matrices are complex, and at times, this perhaps over simplistic paradigm, constructed as it is on ‘necessity’ rather than ‘sufficiency’ (on this see Allen Beever – Rediscovering the Law of Negligence), has threatened to disrupt ‘normative’ notions of ‘fairness’. And so, in what has been essentially a ‘three-stage process’ (as Lord Brown outlines in Sienkiewicz v Greif (UK) Ltd [2011]) in certain, though carefully prescribed scenarios, the courts have been willing to countenance other ways to conceptualise ‘causation’, and so ultimately apportion liability. This ‘departure’ from ‘but for’ causation has met with mixed responses both academically and judicially which is the subject of this essay.

As Lord Hoffmann established in Gregg v Scott [2005], the world, at least in legal terms, is bound by the laws of causality. “Everything ha[s] a determinate cause, even if that cause [is] unknown”; but as Spencer v Wincanton Holdings [2010] clarifies, the law has needed to draw a line under potentially infinite chains of causation, when ultimately it would be “unfair to let it continue”. Historically it has used ‘but for’ causation (coupled with the civilian ‘balance of probabilities’ standard) as one means to achieve that end.

Within even Epstein’s simplest example of tortious causation: ‘A caused B harm’, there is some room for ‘speculation’. Would the patient in Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Hospital Management Committee [1969] definitely have died if the negligent doctor had in fact attended, could a ‘competent rescuer’ have changed the outcome in the Ogopogo [1971]. Both claimants (McWilliams v Sir William Arrol [1962]/Chester v Afshar [2004]) and defendants (Bolitho v City and Hackney HA [1998]) may behave unpredictably.

But as soon as we start to consider ‘multiple defendants’ (Cook v Lewis & Akenhead [1952]), ‘consecutive causes of the same damage’ (Baker v Willoughby [1970]/Jobling v Associated Dairies [1982]) and ‘damages for loss of a chance’ (Hotson v East Berkshire

Health Authority [1987]/Gregg v Scott [2005]) things start to become much more complex.

But even here the courts have tended to favour ‘certainty’, as they have attempted to weigh up ‘just how certain can we be’ against a required ‘burden of proof’. In most instances the civil ‘balance of probabilities’ sufficed, with the doctrine of ‘novus actus interveniens’ proving adequately ‘robust’ to balance out absurdity and justice (McKew v Holland & Hannen & Cubitts [1969]/Wieland v Cyril Lord Carpets [1969]). Though it too was sorely tested at times (Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2000]/Corr v IBC Vehicles [2008]).

Malignant Mesothelioma has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back:

Itself a condition of inordinately complex ‘pathogenesis’ (on this see: Fairchild v Glenhaven Funerals Services [2002]), it was almost inevitable, that as its connection with certain kinds of asbestos exposure were unravelled, it would impact the way in which the courts considered ‘causation’, and consequently allocated liability for damages.

The story predates Fairchild [2002] and we can see at least two ‘departures from’ perhaps better consider ‘modifications to’ the ‘but for’ test:

A. The ‘material contribution to the harm’ modification

A ‘material contribution to the harm’ as developed in Bonnington Castings Ltd v Wardlaw [1956] was a first step in the direction of current day practice, when classic ‘but for’ causality could not be used to provide Mr. Wardlaw with ‘justice’; there being a fundamental uncertainty as to whether his pneumoconiosis (as an ‘accumulative’ condition) had been caused by ‘tortious’ or ‘non-tortious’ dust exposure.

B. The ‘material increase in risk’ modification

These uncertainties were to become even greater in McGhee v National Coal Board [1973], where much as in mesothelioma, just how dermatitis came about had not been definitively established; and in what can be seen as essentially a ‘benefit of the doubt’ exercise, the court established that it was ‘sufficient’ for a plaintiff to show that the defendant’s breach of duty made the ‘risk of injury’ more ‘probable’ even though it was ‘uncertain whether it was

the actual cause’. McGhee was however distinguished in Wilsher v Essex Area Health

Authority [1988] where the ‘multifactorial’ nature of causation regarding ‘retinopathy of prematurity’ was used to negate ultimate liability.

Thereafter, Lord Brown’s three-stage process (as outlined in Sienkiewicz [2011]) proceeds as follows:

• Fairchild v Glenhaven Funerals Services [2002] • Barker v Corus UK Ltd [2006]
• Compensation Act 2006 (section 3)

Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services [2002] represented a trio of appeals to the House of Lords, and resulted in a lengthy and complex judgment. With three complainants and a series of successive potential tortfeasor employers, the court wrestled to provide a coherent rationale to their decision, in particular regarding awards. Ultimately, the court followed the McGhee ‘approach’ (though as had been discussed in Wilsher v Essex Area Health Authority [1988] the case lacked a clear ratio) of a ‘material increase in risk’, and allocated liability between the employers according to ‘joint and several’ liability.

C . Fairchild/Barker exception + Compensation Act 2006 – a true ‘departure’

Just four years later in Barker v Corus UK [2006] this would be overturned, to much consternation both academic and from concerned parties, with a return to ‘several’ liability. The condition’s peculiar pathogenesis meaning that in many instances, chasing down potential but often long gone ‘tortfeasors’ proved to be a fruitless task.

So soon after, Parliament intervened and (as Lord Brown explained) Section 3 of the Compensation Act 2006 was enacted, in what might be considered a true ‘departure’ from the ‘but for test, with the “sole effect [being] to reverse the House’s decision in Barker’s case on the issue of quantum”; resulting (when coupled with the Fairchild/Barker ‘principle’) in what Lord Phillips has called ‘draconian consequences’. As Lord Brown affirmed mesothelioma claims must now be considered from the defendant’s standpoint a lost cause.

We are left to answer the all important question has this all been for the good, which was certainly the chorus after the initial Fairchild judgment, in the light of the devastating consequences of this, at the time, poorly understood condition; or is the current situation, as Lord Brown suggests entirely unsatisfactory?

But in fact this question elides three separate conundrums:

  1. the relative worth of the ‘but for’ test
  2. does ‘justice’ at times require its modification

iii. how should sufferers of ‘indivisible’ conditions such as dermatitis/mesothelioma be


The ‘test’ has been heavily academically criticised; with its potential for ‘absurdity’ (see: Richard Epstein – A Theory of Strict Liability), and Allan Beever arguing that it has little place in ‘overdetermined’ conditions such as mesothelioma. Alternative models (such as Stapleton’s targeted ‘but for’ test and Richard Wright’s NESS test) do exist, but the common law is slow to incorporate ideas that are not its own ‘offspring’, and Lord Brown’s defence of ‘but for’ causality resides in the “clarity, consistency and certainty in its application”. A closer reading of his judgment, reveals that his principal concern is in fact damage allocation (‘aliquot’ as opposed to ‘in solidum’), and how “quixotic the path by which [the current day position] has been arrived at”.

One senses he feels that Section 3 Compensation Act 2006 has robbed the common law of some of its flexibility and nuance, and he is consequently ‘obliged’ to decide the case in a way that goes against his better judgement. Citing that both Bonnington Castings and Fairchild, in fact did not consider ‘apportionment’ he goes on to suggest that on the facts, Greif’s liability (prior to the 2006 Act) would not have been held to be absolute. Fairchild already represented a ‘rock of uncertainty’ and the law would not benefit from any further ‘anomalies in the system’ (Lord Brown having in mind the “supposedly critical distinction between so-called ‘single agent’ and ‘multiple agent’ cases”).

However justice, just as it requires “clarity, consistency and certainty” does require a modicum of flexibility. Epstein has the ‘luxury’ if you will of being able to criticise the ‘but for’ test, in the ‘certain’ knowledge he achieves his ‘certainty’ through strict liability. Whilst it is worth remembering that at the other end of the doctrinal spectrum (tortious negligence) Cork v Kirby MacLean [1952] though known for the birth of the ‘but for test’,

was also every bit a case concerning ‘remoteness’ and the ‘fairness’ of damages allocation in the light of the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act, 1945.

Shifting a causal paradigm from a ‘balance of probabilities’ to a ‘might have caused’ is no small thing; and the Fairchild ‘exception’ has recently (in Heneghan v Manchester Dry Docks Ltd [2016]) been extended to cover ‘asbestos induced’ pulmonary carcinomas. But there is a danger that in the form of Section 3 Compensation Act 2006, Parliament has gone that little bit too far, robbing the common law of some of its nuance (say in the form of Lord Bingham’s 6 carefully crafted Fairchild criteria), that also afforded defendant employers a certain degree of necessary protection.

Wherever this debate ends, and it appears to be very far from over, there can be little doubt that mesothelioma (and the hugely raised awareness in relation to the condition) has impacted the judiciary’s thinking in relation to causality just as much as it has blighted the lives of those who were, or indeed are, unfortunate enough to have been exposed to its horrors. However it is approached there are no easy answers. At one end of the equation we have the victims and/or relatives of a devastating, relentlessly fatal condition possibly ‘caused’ many years before; at the other employers facing almost certain liability, following anything more than a minimal degree of negligent exposure to asbestos fibres. But it is arguable that in terms of judicial notions of ‘causality’, certainty has come at a cost; ‘aliquot’ apportionment might have been one way to resolve this conundrum without unnecessarily sacrificing one of the common law’s most loyal workhorses, in the form of ‘but for causation’, on the altar of certainty.

to tweet or not to tweet…for now at least that remains the question



If (as Sir Ivor Jennings said) “conventions… provide the flesh that clothes the dry bones of the law”, then for any UoL examiners (and at this stage of my law studies I can only imagine) it must surely be apposite, relevant cases that make their day, as they wade through script after script, in those nerve wracking weeks that occupy the interregnum between completing an exam and finding out just how badly or well (remaining optimistic) we as students have performed.

So imagine their joy at a brand new, as yet to be decided, case.

Just such an opportunity has been given to all tort students, as the media is awash with the libel case that is unfolding between @MsJackMonroe and @KTHopkins. I have knowingly used the Twitter monikers of the parties, otherwise known as food writer and ‘campaigner’ Jack Monroe, and Mail Online columnist Katie Hopkins, as much if not all of the case will focus on what constitutes libel on the social media platform Twitter.

The facts are not disputed.

The Twitter feed (following an incident in which memorial to the women of the second world war in Whitehall was vandalised with the words “Fuck Tory scum” during an anti- austerity demonstration) ran as follows:

@KTHopkins: Scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?

@MsJackMonroe: I have NEVER ‘scrawled on a memorial’. Brother in the RAF. Dad was a Para in the Falklands. You’re a piece of shit.

followed by a second message:

@MsJackMonroe: Dear @KTHopkins, public apology + £5K to migrant rescue and I won’t sue. It’ll be cheaper for you and v satisfying for me

Hopkins deleted the first tweet but responded with:

@KTHopkins: Can someone explain to me – in 10 words or less – the difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @MsJackMonroe.

The significance of @PennyRed is that this was a case of mistaken identity.

Minutes previously Laurie Penny, a columnist for the New Statesman, had tweeted from her account @PennyRed that she “[didn’t] have a problem” with the vandalism as a form of protest, as “the bravery of past generations does not oblige us to be cowed today”; Hopkins had crossed her wires and the rest of the exchange is history.

Now any tort student will be aware of the basics when approaching a defamation case, and a large number of answers will open in the following way:

Winfield defined defamation as “The publication of a statement which reflects on a person’s reputation and tends to lower him in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally or tends to make them shun or avoid him.” to which must be added the requirement for ‘serious harm’ as per s.1 Defamation Act 2013 etc.

But here it is likely that even the more seasoned commentators will begin to run dry. The generalities may well flow; with even the Ministry of Justice (quoting Eric Brendt) acknowledging that prior to reform:

“the previous law on libel cases had been criticised as being antiquated, costly and unfair, which resulted in a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the stifling of legitimate debate.”

but just how this particular case will be decided remains in the balance with Mr Justice Warby reserving judgment until later this month.

With Hopkins’ counsel trying to diminish the impact of the events, likening Twitter to the ‘wild-west’ of social media; William Bennet (Monroe’s barrister) was having none of it, actively rejecting the idea that “people don’t believe what they read on Twitter”.

Even though the tweet was deleted some 2 hours later, @KTHopkins has some 681.7 thousand followers, and is herself no stranger to actions in defamation. The Guardian confirming that “in December, Mail Online was forced to pay £150,000 to a British Muslim family over a column by Hopkins which falsely accused them of extremism after they were stopped by US immigration officials en route to Disneyland.” Few can doubt the unpleasantness of the content. Certainly lacking in any, let alone a ‘substantial degree’ of

truth, the question will certainly focus on the potential for serious harm as to Monroe’s ‘reputation’.

As her counsel stated:

“Even if Twitter is the wild west, which we dispute, that doesn’t exclude it from the operation of the law. Even the wild west had local marshals to ensure people weren’t bullied.”

The outcome will be watched carefully by all tort students and scholars, as we will get to learn whether the Defamation Act 2013 really does have adequate ‘nuance’ to protect an individual’s reputation, and/or we have moved into a new era of tweet and be damned.

Sections 2–4 of the Defamation Act 1996 might have offered Hopkins a way out. Though not strictly a ‘defence’, more a form of ‘settlement’; nonetheless this would have required her to publish a ‘correction and apology’, and to pay Monroe determined compensation and costs. With self-reflection not exactly being Hopkins’ strong suit she apparently decided to play hard-ball (see: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/01/katie-hopkins-should- pay-price-over-libel-trial-strategy-say-lawyers) it remains to be seen if such a non- apologetic strategy works in (or against) her favour.

Your thoughts on the matter would be every bit appreciated; or you could just tweet me at @markpummell if you think that advisable.

Happy Studies