The Queen: A Woman in Law

Published 13th June 2016

Due to her position as constitutional monarch, the Queen is more a woman above the law than a woman in law. Due to this position, Her Majesty has a unique relationship with the UK legal system, a relationship that can provoke both interest and criticism.

This weekend the nation will celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday, and in 2015 the UK marked the 63rd year of her reign, which made her the longest-reigning monarch of Britain. She wields considerable symbolic power in the law, as well as a singular vantage point of perspective to view the legal profession.

The relationship between monarch and law was embroiled with particular ideological conflict until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which led to the end of the Divine Right of Kings. The principle of Divine Right asserted that the monarch was subject to no earthly authority, instead deriving their right to rule directly from God. After 1688, the sovereign remained the symbolic heart of the justice system, still evident today in that, for example, barristers who take silk become ‘Queen’s Counsel’.

There are also very real practical implications for the monarch’s special relationship with the law. For example, all prosecutions are brought in the name of the Crown, e.g. Crown vs. x or R (Regina) vs. x. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 provided for civil proceedings to be taken against the Crown, but the person of the monarch is still immune from prosecution. In 2002, Baroness Helena Kennedy commented that nowadays ‘immunity is questionable’, given that if the Queen prevented a fair trial by refusing to appear as a witness it would undermine her position in the public’s view. However, Lord St John of Fawsley, a constitutional expert, argued that requiring the Queen to face cross-examination in court would be ‘contrary to all the principles of jurisprudence’.

Royal assent is another interesting facet of the monarch’s interaction with the UK legal system. The monarch must give royal assent in order for an Act of Parliament to complete its final stage and become UK law. Queen Anne was the last monarch to refuse royal assent when she vetoed the 1708 Scottish Militia Bill, following advice from her ministers that the bill would create a disloyal militia. The crucial involvement of The Queen, albeit symbolically, in the passage of legislation, demonstrates the monarch’s continued role in the legal system.

Royal Consent is a principle distinct from Royal Assent, and refers to the consent required from the crown for the debating of bills in Parliament that could affect the ‘personal interests’ of the monarchy. In 2013 a confidential pamphlet, establishing the circumstances under which Royal Consent is required, was released after PhD student John Kirkhope requested the pamphlet under the Freedom of Information Act. Since 1990, Royal consent has been refused to at least three bills, on the advice of government.

The Queen has reigned over decades of incredible change for women working in the legal profession. As a woman serving as the ‘fount of justice’ for the UK, The Queen has a significant involvement in the legal profession today, and has witnessed the way it has changed for women working throughout law.

Queen Elizabeth II:

I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.
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