The Privy Council in UK

The powers of the Crown are exercised through different agencies. Some are exercised by Ministers acting singly in the Departments over which they preside, some are performed by the Privy Council and its various Committees, some by the Cabinet and some are carried on with the help of the permanent Civil Servants. It will, therefore, be meaningful to know the nature and organization of these institutions and how do they actually function.


Origin and Development of the Privy Council:-

From early times there had been a Council, a group of men attendant on the King, fulfilling certain duties and acting as the King’s advisers. The Privy Council is an official name given in law to the body of persons who are the advisers of the Sovereign. In its origin, the Privy Council is the descendant of the King’s Council, the Curia Regis, which dates from Norman days, and has had, under various names, a continuous history. An attempt was made under the Lancastrian Kings to make it directly subordinate to Parliament, but it could not succeed. In the sixteenth century the King’s Privy Council became the powerful instrument of Tudor despotism. In the next century its powers were considerably eclipsed by an inner circle of the King’s advisers which eventually came to be known as Cabinet.

As the Privy Council had become an unwieldy body for purposes of effective consultations, the later Stuart King started the practice of consulting with a few members of the Council who met the King in his closet or Cabinet. It became a regular practice and by 1679, the old Privy Council may be said to have been virtually abolished, except for formal business and as a Court of Law. This change can be observed from the farewell speech of Charles II, in the same yea to his Privy Councillors, The King said ;

His Majesty thanks you for all the good advice which you have given him which might have been More frequent if the great numbers of the Council had not made it unfit for the secrecy and dispatch of business. This forced him to use a smaller number of you in a foreign committee, and sometimes the advice of some few among them upon such occasions for many years past.

Composition and Organization:-

The Privy Council was, therefore, the chief source of executive power in the State. As the system of Cabinet Government developed, the Privy Councl became less prominent. Many of its powers were transferred to the Cabinet as an inner committee of the Privy Council, and much of its work was handed over to newly created government Departments, some of which were originally the committees of the Privy Council. The present day Privy Council is the body on whose advice and through which the Sovereign exercises his statutory and a number of prerogative powers, it, also, has its own Statutory duties, independent of the power of the King in Council.

The Privy Council includes all Cabinet Ministers, past and present, the Prince of Wales and the Royal Dukes, the Archbishops and the Bishop of London, and a large number of other people of distinction in the field of politics, arts, literature, science or law who are elevated as Privy Councillors, Ambassadors are now usually made Privy Councillors and since the precedent of 1897.

Dominion Premiers are regularly offered its membership. The Speaker of the House of Commons, too, is normally offered Privy Councillorship. The title of Right Honorable is borne by all members of the Privy Councillors and the membership of the Privy Council is retains his membership for life.

The Privy Council is convened by the Clerk of the Privy Council and ts presided over by the Sovereign or, when the Sovereign is abroad or ill, by Councillors of State. Three Privy Councillors from a quorum, but, as a rule, not fewer than four are summoned to attend. Rarely is anyone invited to attend a Council meeting who Is not a Cabinet member. The whole Privy Council is called together only on the death of the Sovereign or when the Sovereign announces his or her intention to marry.

The Privy Council is responsible for advising the Sovereign to approve Orders in Council, of which there are two kinds, differing fundamentally in constitutional principle. Those made by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, for example, Orders approving the grant of Royal Charters of Incorporation, and, secondly, those made under Statutory powers, which are the highest form of delegated Legislation. It is an accepted principle that members of the Privy Council attending meetings at which Orders in Council are made do not thereby become responsible for the policy upon which the Orders are based; this rests with the Ministers whose Departments are responsible for the subjects of the Orders in question whether or not they are present at the meeting. Certain Orders in Council must be published in the London Gazette, which is an official periodical published by the authority of the Government. The Privy Council also advises the Crown on the issue of Royal Proclamations, some of the most important of which relate to the prerogative acts (such as summoning or dissolving Parliament) of the same validity as Acts of Parliament.

The Privy Council serves, as in ancient times, as a panel for the composition of the committees. The meetings of the committees differ from those of the Privy Council itself in that the Sovereign cannot constitutionally be present. These committees have only advisory functions. The committee relating to Jersy and Guernsey is of long historical lineage. Similarly, there are committees for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the Scottish Universities.

Early in the reign of Queen Victoria it was found convenient to entrust the Privy Council, acting through a committee, various functions, which later on were handed over to Departments. The connection of the Council with education, however, remained considerably longer and it was only in 1899, that a Board of Education with an independent President was substituted for the committee. The administrative work of the Privy Council committees is carried out in the Privy Council office under the control of the Lord President of the Council.

The most noteworthy of such committees is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council created in 1833. This Committee is generally selected from Lord Chancellor, ex-Lord Chancellors, and Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, although other members of the Privy Council who have held high judicial office (including Chief Justices and certain other judges from other Commonwealth countries who have been sworn members of the Privy Council) may also be asked to sit when business of the Judicial Committee is heavy. The Judicial Committee does not deliver judgment. It advises the Sovereign who acts on its report and approves an Order in Council to give effect thereto. Its decisions, though not binding on the English courts, are treated with great respect by them.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal from the courts of United Kingdom dependencies and certain States of the Commonwealth, including certain countries of which Her Majesty is no longer the Queen, but have not elected to discontinue to appeal. It derives its appellate jurisdiction in respect of such appeals from the principle of English Common Law which recognizes, the right of all the King’s subjects to appeal for redress to the Sovereign in Council, if they believed that the Courts of Law had failed to do them justice. The Judicial Committee is also the final court of appeal from the ecclesiastical courts of England, from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, and from Prize Courts? in the United Kingdom and dependencies. It hears appeals from members of the medical, dental and certain kindred professions against decisions of their respective disciplinary bodies.

Lord Samuels describes the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as one of the most august tribunals in the world. Members of the Judicial Committee hold or have held certain high judicial offices in the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth and the Privy Councillors. Appeals are admitted only by leave given by the courts overseas according to local law or, failing that, by the Judicial Committee itself.

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