Sunday, May 31, 2015

Proportionality and the Rule of Law

As you know – although I’m sure you wouldn’t admit it in front of your drinking buddies – there are few more enjoyable ways of spending a wet Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend than by struggling to understand a book written in technical language that you feel you should understand.

So it is with Proportionality and the Rule of Law: Rights, Justification, Reasoning (CUP, 2014), a collection of essays by 18 contributors, edited by Grant Huscroft, Bradley W Miller, and Grégoire Webber.

I can only speak of the Introduction, as the book is rather expensive, and even the ebook seems over-priced. At least Amazon gives us a free sample, which includes the very excellent (as opposed to sort-of excellent?) Introduction by the editors.

So my little game, if you think of it like that, is to translate into ordinary lawyers’ English the technical language of the Introduction. But beware of the risk that I do this with a clarity born of misunderstanding.

“Proportionality” has a range of meanings and can refer to a method or to a goal of decision-making. I wouldn’t want to confuse it with other kinds of decision-making, such as logic, formalism (the application of rules to facts), morality (what would be the morally right decision), pragmatism (what result would work), although there can be some overlap.

Balancing of competing values is a proportionality method of decision-making. So is the rather different ends/means balancing, but this can be seen as a method or as a goal. Using reasonableness to limit what is acceptable is also a proportionality method. Sometimes proportionality endangers rights, in balancing them against other values, and sometimes it compromises moral values, where what is right yields to a greater right or some greater interest.

What happens to rights in proportionality reasoning can vary. Rights are not necessarily eroded in the balancing process, which will usually recognise their enhanced weight by virtue of their status as rights, but if an issue of limitation is being considered then there is a risk of erosion if proportionality requires that.

Proportionality can require recognition of the autonomy and dignity of the person, and this may guide the interpretation of legislation. Legislators, however, may have a greater awareness of rights and social interests than do courts, so executive decisions should be judged by their method rather than their outcome. This concern would limit the role of proportionality reasoning. Indeed, it is arguable (although I am not convinced by this) that proportionality is too abstract a method to be of use to judges.

You could say that morality is important and that proportionality reasoning is not a complete method for judicial decision-making. There are risks attending proportionality reasoning: irrelevancies may be taken into account, things that are doubtful may be treated as certainties, a judge may yield too much to extraneous determinations, aspects of the public good may be ignored, and a judge may have resort to a personal political philosophy.

In their conclusion to the Introduction the editors ask some pertinent questions, which the essays apparently leave the reader to consider. I put these in my own words, sacrificing the subtleties. Does proportionality erode rights? What about absolute rights? Should judges take more account of the reasons that motivate enactments? Should legislators, rather than the courts, use proportionality reasoning? Where proportionality reasoning includes morality, does it prefer some moral theories over others? How should the dangers of proportionality reasoning by courts be overcome?

Well, it’s a shame that the book is so expensive. Too expensive to read. Hopefully my clumsy summary of its Introduction will make some of the essayists’ interesting ideas more accessible.