Queen Elizabeth II tipped the scales towards Justice

I have reflected over the last ten days on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s role as Head of the UK’s Justice System reflected in the names, The Royal Courts of Justice, The Crown Court, and indeed Queen’s Counsel, the title of senior barristers, who will now, of course, become King’s Counsel.

The official website of the British Royal Family states: “While no longer administering justice in a practical way, the Sovereign today still retains an important symbolic role as the figure in whose name justice is carried out, and law and order is maintained.” (1, 2)

The Queen was clearly mindful of this responsibility 20 years ago in a famous case heard at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. Princess Diana’s long-serving butler, Paul Burrell, was prosecuted on three charges of theft.(3) Following the alleged sale of some of Diana’s private items in the US, the police raided his house and discovered 310 items from the late princess's estate, and also items which had belonged to Prince Charles (now King Charles III) and Prince William. Although Paul Burrell was one of the few people that Diana had truly trusted, the evidence seemed hopelessly against him, and he was facing a prison sentence if convicted.

However, the turning point in the case was when the Queen personally intervened. This was an unprecedented action in the modern era. She explained that Burrell had told her five years before that he was storing the items for safe keeping.(4) The Queen’s statement led to the judge reviewing the prosecution’s case, Burrell was exonerated and the trial was stopped.

Scales of justice in weights and measures

In 2008 I interviewed Paul Ramsden, then Deputy Chief Executive, of the Institute of Trading Standards (ITS) on the relationship between the Institute and the Information Commissioners Office. We spoke about their complementary enforcement roles.(5)

I noticed in the entrance hall that there was a traditional weighing scale, the same type that is famously part of a statue at the top of the Old Bailey. The scales reflect the role of judges in weighing the evidence in a case and deciding on their judgement based on the relative merits of the two sides in the UK’s common law adversarial system.(6)

The description underneath the scales at the ITS included a quotation from the Old Testament:

“Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. You are to maintain just balances and reliable standards for weights, dry volumes, and liquid volumes.” Leviticus 19:35 and 36.

Later, I discovered that the Trading Standards Institute had received a Royal Charter from the Queen on 1 April 2015.(7)

The quotation from the Bible is significant in this context because its principles provided the historic foundation for the modern role of Trading Standards Officers. The Institute had been founded as long ago as 1881 as the Incorporated Society of Inspectors of Weights and Measures. The Queen’s Royal Charter awarded to the Institute (now known as the Chartered Institute of Trading Standards Officers) visibly brought together her respect for the Old Testament in her role as Head of the Church of England, and her role as head of the UK’s system of Justice.

The Queen approved the appointment of the Information Commissioner

The current legal status of the Information Commissioner has been dependent up to now on the recommendations of successive Prime Ministers, and signed off by the Queen as a matter of formality. Accounts by her Prime Ministers reveal that the Queen took a detailed interest in every area of policy.

However, this form of governance is due to be changed to a corporate form of governance in the future, if the current Data Protection and Digital Information Bill going through Parliament becomes law. This will mean that John Edwards, the current Information Commissioner, may be the last to have been appointed formally by the Monarch.

The Freedom of Information Act

Finally, King Charles III has a close acquaintance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 because he was at the centre of a ten-year battle by The Guardian to seek access to his correspondence with Government ministers on several subjects.(8) This was a battle won by The Guardian in 2015 after the case passed through the Freedom of Information Tribunal, the High Court and Appeal Court, and finally to the Supreme Court.

King Charles III will probably keep himself well informed on legal cases of public importance. But it is unlikely that he will need to intervene dramatically as the Queen did in the Burrell case. As Monarch, he will enjoy an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act from access to his correspondence.(9) He will be the figure in whose name justice is carried out, so King Charles III is likely to maintain the monarch’s essentially symbolic role as head of the UK’s justice system.

Stewart Dresner

Chief Executive, Privacy Laws & Business

  1. The Queen and Law
  2. British Royal Family
  3. The Guardian - Queen's evidence clears Diana butler
  4. Chronology of The Queen's involvement in the Paul Burrell Case
  5. PL&B UK Report June 2008 pp.7-9
  6. Statue of justice
  7. Trading Standards Royal Charter
  8. The Guardian - Release of Prince Charles's letters shows the point of freedom of information
  9. Freedom of information and the Royal Family