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14. Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd V Wednesbury Corporation November 11, 1937

This was a landmark case in the development of judicial review. A local council had granted a licence to the claimants for them to open their cinema on Sundays. But the council imposed the condition that children under 15 were not to be allowed in. The company said that was “unreasonable” and therefore beyond the powers of the council. The Court of Appeal found that the condition was reasonable – however, Lord Greene, the Master of the Rolls, stated that in certain circumstances courts could declare administrative or governmental actions as unauthorised or unreasonable. His words crystallised into a hallowed and frequently cited proposition. He said the courts couldn’t simply substitute their own opinion for that of the public body or official but they could invalidate a decision if it had been made in an unreasonable way. To be unreasonable, the decision would have to be one in which an authority had “taken into account matters which it ought not to take into account”, or, conversely, has “refused to take into account or neglected to take into account matters which it ought to take into account”. The number of judicial review cases has risen dramatically from just a few a year in the 1950s, through 500 a year in the 1980s, to about 6,000 a year now.

15. Liversidge V Anderson November 4, 1941

A graphic instance of a legal decision being influenced by the social environment in which it takes place. A ministerial power to make subjective judgments about a citizen’s freedom was permitted in this controversial House of Lords’ decision. During the Second World War, Robert William Liversidge of St James’s Close in London’s Regents Park, who was in Brixton Prison at the time of the action, challenged the legality of his incarceration. There was a defence regulation providing that a Secretary of State could make orders for the detention of people whom he had “reasonable cause” to believe were “of hostile origin or associations” and in need of subjection to preventative control. Liversidge was such a suspect. The regulation was interpreted as establishing a subjective test of reasonableness. In other words, it all depended on what the minister thought was reasonable, not what an outside, objective person might think. To establish the invalidity of a detention order, a detainee would have to prove that the Secretary of State did not genuinely believe he had reasonable cause. The case is also famous for a very powerful and florid dissenting speech from Lord Atkin, who said that even during war a minister should not have uncontrolled powers of imprisonment: “In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent.”

16. Young V Bristol Aeroplane Company July 29, 1944

This case was originally about a man, Young, who lost three fingers in an industrial injury involving unfenced machinery. But the judgment is important because it explains the circumstances in which the Court of Appeal can go against one of its earlier decisions. In addition to saying something about how factory machinery should work, the case sets the law on how the legal machinery should work. It decides, for example, that the Court of Appeal is not bound to follow a previous decision of its own if there are two earlier Court of Appeal decisions inconsistent with one another. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Greene, said the court is not bound to follow a decision of its own if it is satisfied that the decision was “given per incuriam” [through an error], for example, where a statute or rule having statutory effect which would have affected the decision was not brought to the attention of the earlier court”.

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