Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King's shilling

Once upon a time, in days of yore, in merry ole England soldiers in the King's service received a shilling as their wage. Interestingly the word shilling comes from schilling, an accounting term that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times when it was deemed to be the value of a cow in Kent or a sheep elsewhere. I remember as a child that my father kept some shillings as a souvenir but they had dropped out of circulation in England soon after I was born. In any event, the term 'to take the King's shilling' means to be in the employ of the Crown. The reason why I mention this is because I found out during my studies that if you wish to resign from Parliament this is exactly what one must do.

Apparently in 1624 a resolution was passed that election as a Member of Parliament is such a sacred trust that one can not resign their position. Obviously you can certainly lose your seat in an election, or you can die in office but what is one to do when there is a pressing need to leave the Commons for some reason. Recent events related to Parliament expenses has brought this to light - the MP must take the King's (or in this case the Queen's) shilling.

Based upon a provision in the Act of Settlement 1701, an MP who accepted a paid office under the Crown was obliged to leave the Commons and give up his position as an MP. The rationale being that his independence would be compromised if he were in the King's pay. As a result an MP who wished to give up his seat applied to the King for a post of the steward of an estate which had come into the ownership of the Crown. While such positions are archaic, really no more than in name only with little pay, they are taking the King's shilling nonetheless.

So now according to section 4 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 a member of the House of Commons becomes disqualified should they take the office of steward or bailiff of Her Majesty's three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or of the Manor of Northstead. Still a rather spiffy title I should think.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sneak Preview

Three interesting things I wanted to let you know are coming up in future blog posts:

Will the UK withdraw from the ECHR?

The unusual way in which MP's can 'resign' from their posts.

Finally have you ever noticed how many appeals are based upon poor instructions by the trial judge to the jury? What is to be done to fix this?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jury Rights and Wrongs

I've come across an interesting bit of material in my studies about juries that I thought I would share. Basically it concerns the benefits and disadvantages of jury trials. Many of these are common fare - juries are a poor choice to sit in judgment of others because they are not experts neither in the law or in the specifics of the case, they cost more than a judge would, they are expensive and time consuming. On the other hand many believe that juries are an essential, participatory and democratic element to the justice system. Studies have constantly shown that people believe that due to their random selection (and in America their supposedly unbiased nature) they are eminently fair. Satisfaction with the jury system is extremely high. However there seems to be one argument put forward against the jury that has a good bit of traction in my mind - the notion that juries are arbitrary. Arbitrary in the sense that their judgment is limited to one or two words (i.e. "guilty" or "not guilty") without the need to say what drove them to their decision. No justification of their decision is required. While I understand why this might be the case (the believe that by giving specific justification for their decision such as "we did not believe the witness for the defense" may open them up to a legal challenge and thus a never ending court procedure) it does sit poorly when looking for an open and transparent process.

This line of criticism was taken up recently by the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Taxquet v Belgium. In this case Mr. Taxquet appealed against his conviction in a Belgium court based upon the fact that he did not know what were the reasons which drove the jury to respond in the affirmative to four questions which were the basis for his conviction. He complained that this lack of transparency violated his right to a fair trial as protected under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR agreed with him. It is important to note however that the ECHR in no way condemned jury trials by their nature - but rather that in relation to this case, the verdict lacked the transparency required for the ECHR to deem it fair. It remains to be seen how this may play out give that the case was only decided recently. However one could imagine that by providing a rationale the system would allow more light to fall into the darkness of the jury's deliberations.