Frederick Wilmot-Smith

Frederick Wilmot-Smith’s first book, Equal Justice, is published by Harvard.

Short Cuts: Plainly Unconstitutional

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 21 October 2021

Thejudiciary, Alexander Hamilton wrote in ‘Federalist No. 78’, was ‘beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power’. Today, in the United States, that is open to question. All it takes to nullify the decisions of the president or the legislature is the decision of five members of the Supreme Court – and there is often no practical way to...

Short Cuts: RBG’s Big Mistake

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 8 October 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died 46 days before November’s presidential election. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, almost immediately announced his intention to confirm a new justice. Just as immediately, he was accused of hypocrisy. Scalia died 269 days before the 2016 election and that, Republicans argued at the time, was too close to the election for it to be right to confirm a successor. What happened to the ‘constitutional principle’ invoked to block Garland’s appointment? There are various arguments. Ted Cruz claims that voters were drawn to Trump by his stance on the courts; Lindsey Graham invokes Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing. These ‘arguments’ go nowhere. McConnell, though, pointed to the fact that the Senate in 2016 was ruled by ‘an opposite party’ to the president’s. The real principle here is power: whoever has control of the Senate decides whether its advice and consent will be given. The Republicans were in charge in 2016 and they are in charge now: they can exercise their power as they wish.

From The Blog
5 February 2020

The Conservatives have been in power since 2010: if there is a flaw in the sentencing rules, it is their fault. Those rules aren’t the root problem, though. Sudesh Amman, on the government’s new proposal, would have been released a year or so later, just as eager to kill. More important is what happens after a sentence is passed, in prison and on probation.

Justice eBay Style

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 26 September 2019

The​ Shield of Achilles, as described in the Iliad, portrays two cities. One of them is at war, circled by ‘a divided army/gleaming in battle-gear’. In the other, there is a promise of peace through the exercise of law: ‘the people massed, streaming into the marketplace/where a quarrel had broken out and two men struggled/ over the blood-price for a kinsman just...

Short Cuts: Environmental Law

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 8 February 2018

The oceans​ are awash with plastic. According to one study from 2015, 90 per cent of seabirds have it in their gut. Another study indicates that a third of the fish caught in UK waters have it in theirs. Unless something changes, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be a greater weight of plastic in the seas than fish. The secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, watching

Who speaks for the state? Brexit in Court

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 1 December 2016

What is the proper distribution of power between Parliament and the executive? It’s a question raised by the recent High Court decision in Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, a member state must ‘notify the European Council of its intention’ to leave, commencing a two-year period of negotiations on the terms of its withdrawal. But who has the power to speak for the state?

Blame Robert Maxwell: How Public Inquiries Go Wrong

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 17 March 2016

On 15 June 2009, Gordon Brown announced an inquiry into the Iraq war – to investigate, as Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman, put it, ‘the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.’ Although oral hearings finished in early 2011, the inquiry won’t report until the middle of this year...

Court Cuts

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 30 July 2015

In his first speech as lord chancellor, Michael Gove warned of a ‘dangerous inequality’ in the justice system. There was, he said, a ‘gold standard’ for the wealthy and a ‘creaking, outdated system’ for everyone else. This, from a minister in a government that has made enormous cuts to legal aid, is a little like Orestes asking for mercy on account of his being an orphan. Even so, his diagnosis is correct. What should be done?

Necessity or Ideology? Legal Aid

Frederick Wilmot-Smith, 6 November 2014

In the 12th and 13th centuries, judges would be sent out from Westminster every seven years to adjudicate on any disputes that had come about since their last sojourn. In 1292, in Shropshire, Alice Knotte complained that Thomas Champeneys ‘detaineth from her seven shillings in money and a surcoat of the value of three shillings’. ‘Alice can get no justice at all,’ she protested, ‘seeing that she is poor and that this Thomas is rich.’ She implored the judge: ‘I have none to help me save God and you.’ Alice then might be Alice today. What should she do? She cannot simply take the seven shillings from Thomas.  Not only does the law forbid it, Thomas’s wealth means he probably has the power to take it back.

From The Blog
24 July 2018

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are said to have been part of the terrorist cell that beheaded numerous British and American citizens, including the journalist James Foley. The pair, currently detained in Syria by Kurdish forces, are likely to stand trial for these crimes in the United States. Part of the reason Guantánamo Bay remains open is that it can be extremely difficult to secure convictions in such cases; the US will want as much evidence as possible, and the UK, which has been gathering intelligence for years, will have a lot.

From The Blog
20 October 2017

On 29 March 2019, unless the European Council unanimously decides otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and a new trading arrangement between the EU and the UK will come into effect. If no bespoke deal is approved, trading arrangements will be conducted on World Trade Organisation terms. The UK will also lose any arrangements to which it is a party through the EU: there are more than 750. This is one reason the UK’s negotiating position with the EU is asymmetrical: even if ‘no deal’ harms both sides’ trade, it will be much worse for the UK.

From The Blog
9 December 2016

The oral argument in Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union finished in the Supreme Court case yesterday. The question was whether or not the government has to consult Parliament before notifying the European Council, under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, that the UK intends to leave the EU. Last month the Divisional Court in London ruled that Parliament must be consulted; the government is appealing against that decision. Whatever the outcome of the case, the proceedings were remarkable. As with most hearings in the Supreme Court, the argument was streamed online. Unlike most, it attracted quite a few viewers. Transcripts were made available; commentators summarised the arguments. Lawyers took to Twitter to explain – or mock – the proceedings. When so little else seems to be going according to plan, this is some cause for celebration: the peaceful, public scrutiny of government actions by an open court is a rare thing.

From The Blog
26 September 2016

The United States Supreme Court does not permit video recording. ‘The day you see a camera come into our courtroom,’ Justice David Souter said in 1996, ‘it’s going to roll over my dead body.’ The Supreme Court is not, he argued, ‘part of the entertainment industry’. In a recent paper called Transforming Our Justice System, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice says that the justice system ‘should be competing … with every modern consumer experience’ that citizens ‘have in their lives’.

From The Blog
28 June 2016

The legal problems arising from the EU referendum need to be distinguished from the political ones. One thing is clear: the referendum itself had no more legal effect – either within the United Kingdom or on the UK’s legal relations with the European Union – than a straw poll of your friends (or mine). The UK is still a member of the EU and has not, legally, indicated its desire to leave the Union. The political consequences are quite another matter, and may well lead to exit from the EU.

From The Blog
23 March 2016

‘We are on familiar ground,’ Lord Faulks said. Another increase to court fees, another futile motion of regret in the House of Lords. Fees for an uncontested divorce petition – which costs, on average, £270 to process – went up from £410 to £550. Government profits from divorce are set to increase.

From The Blog
15 October 2015

Ronald Dworkin once said that a judge faced with an unjust law ‘would have to consider whether he should actually enforce’ it ‘or whether he should lie and say that this was not the law after all, or whether he should resign’. Faced with the criminal courts charge, introduced in April, magistrates have taken all three options. The government’s policy is that ‘convicted adult offenders who use our criminal courts should pay towards the cost of running them’. Those who plead guilty pay £150; those who protest their innocence but are found guilty face a charge of up to £1200. There are obvious problems with this. First, courts have a financial incentive to find an accused person guilty. Second, the risk of the charge is a substantial inducement for the innocent to plead guilty. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is happening; it would be surprising if it were not. Third, the charge, which isn’t means-tested, is especially punitive on the poor. Louise Sewell, who had not eaten for two days, stole Mars bars worth 75p. After pleading guilty to theft, she was left with a bill of £150 for her use of the court.

From The Blog
29 April 2015

In 2005, Australian officials learned of a plot to smuggle heroin from Indonesia to Australia. They passed the information onto the Indonesian authorities, saying they should ‘take what action they deem appropriate’. Nine people, now known as the Bali Nine, were arrested and convicted. The Australian ringleaders, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, were last night tied to a post and shot dead. They refused blindfolds. There were twelve marksmen for each prisoner, but to ease their consciences only three fired live rounds.

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