Monday, 7 November 2011

Lord Atkin's judgment in Liversidge v Anderson (1941)

This is a dissenting judgment delivered in the House of Lords in litigation over the British government's emergency wartime legislation adopted in 1939 (Liversidge v Anderson [1941] UKHL 1).  The plaintiff was seeking to challenge the Home Secretary's decision to intern him without trial.  The majority of the Law Lords held that the courts could not review the Home Secretary's decision.

I view with apprehension the attitude of judges who on a mere question of construction, when face to face with claims involving the liberty of the subject, show themselves more executive-minded than the executive. Their function is to give words their natural meaning, not perhaps in war time leaning towards liberty, but following the dictum of Pollock C.B. in Bowditch v. Balchin (1850, 5 Ex. 378), cited with approval by my noble and learned friend Lord Wright in Barnard v. Gorman (1941, 3 All E.R., at p. 55), "in a case in which the liberty of the subject is concerned, we "cannot go beyond the natural construction of the Statute." In this country amidst the clash of arms the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace. It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law. In this case I have listened to arguments which might have been addressed acceptably to the Court of Kings Bench in the time of Charles I.

I protest, even if I do it alone, against a strained construction put upon words with the effect of giving an uncontrolled power of imprisonment to the Minister. To recapitulate. The words have only one meaning: they are used with that meaning in statements of the common law and in statutes; they have never been used in the sense now imputed to them: they are used in the defence regulations in the natural meaning: and when it is intended to express the meaning now imputed to them, different and apt words are used in the defence regulations generally and in this regulation in particular. Even if it were relevant, which it is not, there is no absurdity or no such degree of public mischief as would lead to a non-natural construction.

I know of only one authority which might justify the suggested method of construction. "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone," it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." (Looking Glass, c. vi.) After all this long discussion the question is whether the words "If a man has" can mean "If a man thinks he has." I am of opinion that they cannot, and that the case should be decided accordingly.