Oliver Smithies Lecture: ‘Legalising the Deportation of Refugees to Rwanda: What Would Albert Venn Dicey Say?'

To address the increase in asylum seekers arriving on the shores of the United Kingdom, the UK government introduced a scheme to send some of them to Rwanda. In November of 2023, the UK Supreme Court held, based on evidence introduced in lower courts, that Rwanda is not a safe country for refugee claimants and therefore the plan violated various human rights guarantees in domestic and international law and is unlawful (R (AAA) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] UKSC 42). The UK government responded by introducing a bill into Parliament, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which would, if enacted, declare Rwanda a safe country and, with limited exceptions, prevent judges and other officials from concluding otherwise. This form of legislative interference with the judicial process is remarkable, and certain legal scholars have suggested a ‘constitutional crisis’ may ensue. Could the courts, for the first time ever, declare an Act of Parliament invalid? The orthodox understanding of the British constitution is still framed in terms set by Albert Venn Dicey, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford (and a former student of Balliol) in his 1885 book Law of the Constitution, and it is premised upon the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, the idea that Parliament may make and unmake any law it wants. But Dicey also thought that parliamentary sovereignty could be reconciled with another principle, ‘the rule of law’, which ensures that rights are protected from arbitrary measures by ordinary courts. In my presentation, I will offer some reflections on how the Rwanda bill threatens the delicate balance between legislature and judiciary in the UK, and I will consider whether the ‘Diceyan’ understanding of the constitution offers any lessons in response.