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Royal prerogative in the United Kingdom

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Royal prerogative in the United Kingdom

British passports and chivalric orders are regulated under the Royal Prerogative.
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the United Kingdom

The royal prerogative is a body of customary authority, privilege, and immunity, recognised in the United Kingdom as the sole prerogative of the Sovereign. Many of the executive powers of British government, vested in a monarch, have been bestowed under the mandate of the royal prerogative.

Prerogative powers were formerly exercised by the monarch acting on his or her own initiative. Since the 19th century, by convention, the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet—who are then accountable to Parliament for the decision—has been required in order for the prerogative to be exercised. The monarch remains constitutionally empowered to exercise the Royal Prerogative against the advice of the prime minister or the cabinet, but in practice would only do so in emergencies or where existing precedent does not adequately apply to the circumstances in question.

Today the royal prerogative is concerned with several areas critical to the government of the United Kingdom, including the conduct of foreign affairs, defence, and national security. The monarchy has a significant constitutional presence in these and other areas, but very limited power, because the prerogative is in the hands of the prime minister and other ministers or other government officials.


William Blackstone, who maintained that the Royal Prerogative was any power that could be exercised by only the monarch

The royal prerogative has been called "a notoriously difficult concept to define adequately",[1] but prominent constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey has written that:

The Diceyan view is the one most commentators follow, but some constitutional lawyers prefer the definition given by William Blackstone:[3]

The two views are divergent. Dicey's opinion is that any action of governance by the monarch beyond statute is under the prerogative. Blackstone, however, maintains that the prerogative simply covers those actions that no other person or body in the United Kingdom can undertake, such as the dissolution of Parliament.[2]


Sir Edward Coke, who held that the prerogative did not allow the monarch to sit as a judge

The royal prerogative originated as the personal power of the monarch. From the 13th century in England, as in France, the monarch was all-powerful, but this absolute power was checked by "the recrudescence of feudal turbulence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries".[4] An early attempt to define the Royal Prerogative was stated by Richard II's judges in 1387.[5][6]

During the 16th century, this "turbulence" began to recede, and the monarch became truly independent. Under Henry VIII and his successors, the king was the head of the Protestant English church, and therefore not answerable to the clergy. The rise of Parliament in this period, however, was problematic. While the monarch was "the predominant partner in the English constitution", the courts stopped short of declaring him all-powerful, recognizing the role that Parliament played.[4] In Ferrer's Case,[7] Henry recognised this, noting that he was far more powerful with the consent of Parliament than without. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the matter of taxation: Sir Thomas Smith and other writers of the period pointed out the monarch could not impose taxation without Parliament's consent.[8]

At the same time, Henry and his descendants normally followed the will of the courts, despite the fact they were theoretically not bound by judges. William Holdsworth infers that by regularly asking the legal officers of the crown and judiciary for legal advice and consent, Henry recognised the need for a stable government to follow the law. He also contends that the view that the law is supreme over all "was the view of all the leading lawyers and statesmen and publicists of the Tudor period".[9] It was accepted that while the King had "unfettered discretion", he was limited in areas where the courts had imposed conditions on the use of the prerogative, or where he had chosen to do so.[10]

The first dent in this stability came about in 1607, with the Case of Prohibitions. James VI and I claimed that as monarch, he had a divine right to sit as a judge and interpret the common law as he saw fit. Led by Sir Edward Coke, the judiciary rejected this idea, stating that while the monarch was not subject to any individual, he was subject to the law. Until he had gained sufficient knowledge of the law, he had no right to interpret it; Coke pointed out that such knowledge "demanded mastery of an artificial reason ... which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it". Similarly, in the Case of Proclamations in 1611, Coke held that the monarch could only exercise those prerogatives he already had, and not create new ones.[11]

With the Glorious Revolution, King James VII and II was replaced by Queen Mary II and her husband King William III. At the same time the Bill of Rights 1689 was drafted, which cemented the monarch's subservience to Parliament. It specifically limited the Royal Prerogative, with Article 1 holding that the "power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal", and article 4 confirming that "levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal". The Bill also confirmed that Parliament had the right to limit the use of remaining prerogatives, as evidenced by the Triennial Act 1694, which required the monarch to dismiss and call Parliament at certain times.[12]

Prerogative powers


William IV, the last monarch to arbitrarily dissolve Parliament by using the Royal Prerogative

One of the monarch's historic prerogatives was the dissolution of Parliament, which was "...perhaps the most important residual prerogative exercised personally by the sovereign, and represents the greatest potential for controversy."[13] This prerogative was normally exercised at the request of Parliament and the prime minister, either at his or her discretion or following a motion of no confidence. The last time the monarch unilaterally dissolved Parliament was in 1835, when Earl Grey resigned as prime minister; although he had a fully functioning cabinet capable of carrying on without him, William IV chose to force it out of office. Constitutional theorists have differing views as to whether this would be possible today; Sir Ivor Jennings wrote that a dissolution involves "the acquiescence of ministers", and as such the monarch could not dissolve Parliament without ministerial consent; "if ministers refuse to give such advice, she can do no more than dismiss them". A. V. Dicey, however, believed that in certain extreme circumstances the monarch could dissolve Parliament single-handedly, on the condition that " occasion has arisen on which there is fair reason to suppose that the opinion of the House is not the opinion of the electors... A dissolution is allowable, or necessary, whenever the wishes of the legislature are, or may fairly be presumed to be, different from the wishes of the nation."[14]

The monarch could force the dissolution of Parliament through a refusal of Third Irish Home Rule Bill; Jennings writes that "it was assumed by the King throughout that he had not only the legal power but the constitutional right to refuse assent".[15] The royal prerogative to dissolve Parliament was abrogated by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Section 6(1) of the Act however specifically states that the monarch's power to prorogue Parliament is not affected by the Act.

The appointment of the prime minister is also, theoretically, governed by the Royal Prerogative. Technically the monarch may appoint as prime minister anyone she wants to appoint, but in practice the appointee is always the person who commands a majority in the House of Commons. Usually, this is the leader of the political party that is returned to Parliament with a majority of seats after a general election. Difficulties may result with a so-called hung parliament, in which no party commands majority support. In this situation, constitutional convention is that the previous incumbent has the first right to form a coalition government and seek appointment.[16] If the prime minister decides to retire in the middle of a parliamentary session, as Anthony Eden did in 1957, the monarch has no discretion. There is usually a "prime minister-in-waiting" who commands the support of the majority of the Commons; he or she will near-automatically be appointed.[17]

Judicial system

The most noted prerogative power that affects the judicial system is the prerogative of mercy, which has two elements: the granting of pardons and the granting of nolle prosequi. Pardons may eliminate the "pains, penalties and punishments" from a criminal conviction, though they do not remove convictions themselves. This power is commonly exercised on the advice of the Secretary of State for the Home Department; the monarch has no direct involvement in its use. Exercises of this power may also take the form of commutations, a limited form of pardon where the sentences is reduced, on certain conditions. The granting of a pardon is not subject to judicial review, as confirmed by Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service,[18] but the courts have chosen to criticise its application or lack thereof, as in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Bentley.[19][20] Granting nolle prosequi is done by the Attorney General of England and Wales (or the equivalent in Scotland or Northern Ireland) in the name of the crown, to stop legal proceedings against an individual. This is not reviewable by the courts, as confirmed by R v Comptroller of Patents, and does not count as an acquittal; the defendant may be brought before the courts on the same charge at a later date.[21]

Foreign affairs

The Royal Prerogative is in much use in the realm of foreign affairs. It is the monarch who recognises foreign states (although several statutes regulate the immunities enjoyed by their heads and diplomatic representatives), issues declarations of war and peace, and forms international treaties. The monarch also has the power to annex territory, as was done in 1955 with the island of Rockall. Once territory has been annexed, the monarch has complete discretion as to the extent to which the government will take over the former government's liabilities; this was confirmed in West Rand Central Gold Mining Company v The King. The monarch also has the power to alter British territorial waters and cede territory. Her freedom to do these things in practice is doubtful, in that they might deprive British citizens of their nationality and rights. When the island of Heligoland was ceded to Germany in 1890, Parliamentary approval was first sought.[22] The monarch can also regulate colonies and dependent territories by exercising the prerogative through Orders in Council. The courts have long fought against the monarch's use of this power: in R (Bancoult) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No 2),[23] the Court of Appeal ruled that using Orders-in-Council to frustrate judicial rulings was an unlawful abuse of power, although this ruling was later overturned.[24]

Passports are also regulated by the prerogative, although these are also covered by statute law. Under the common law, citizens have the right freely to leave and enter the United Kingdom. In R v Foreign Secretary ex parte Everett, the courts held that it was their right to review the granting of passports to, and the withholding of passports from, British citizens. The writ of ne exeat regno is also used to prevent a person leaving the country. The right to make treaties is a disputed prerogative power: under Blackstone's definition, a prerogative power must be one unique to the monarch. However, because a treaty cannot interface with United Kingdom law without an enabling Act of Parliament (such as the European Communities Act 1972) the monarch alone cannot bring one into force.[25]


The monarch also has power to exercise her prerogative over the granting of honours, the regulation of the armed forces and ecclesiastical appointments. Although the granting of most honours is normally decided by the executive, the monarch is still the person who technically awards them. Exceptions to this rule are membership of the [27] This exercise of prerogative power gives the Crown authority to recruit members of the armed forces, appoint commissioned officers, and establish agreements with foreign governments to station troops in their territory.[28] The prerogative empowers the monarch to appoint bishops and archbishops in the Church of England,[29] and to regulate the printing and licensing of the authorised Church of England version of the Bible.[30]

R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Northumbria Police Authority, recognised that the prerogative also includes the power to "take all reasonable steps to preserve the Queen's peace", and in Burmah Oil Co. v Lord Advocate, the House of Lords took the view that it extended to "...doing all those things in an emergency which are necessary for the conduct of [the Second World War]."[31]


Today, the monarch exercises the prerogative almost exclusively in line with the advice of her government. Leyland notes that:

In simple terms, the prerogative is used to govern the realm in the name of the Crown; although the monarch has the "right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn", her role involves no exercise of discretion.[33]

Today, some prerogative powers are directly exercised by ministers without the approval of Parliament, including the powers of declaring war and of making peace, the issue of passports, and the granting of honours.[34] Prerogative powers are exercised nominally by the monarch, but on the advice of the prime minister (whom the monarch meets weekly) and of the cabinet.[35] Some key functions of the British government are still executed by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, but generally the usage of the prerogative has been diminishing as functions are progressively put on a statutory basis.[36]


Several influential decisions of the House of Lords have seriously limited the use of prerogatives. In 1915, the Lords ruled in Re Petition of Right, which concerned the British Army's seizure of a commercial airfield for military purposes in wartime. The government argued that this action was to defend against an invasion; the courts held that for the prerogative to be exercised, the government must demonstrate that a threat of invasion exists. This was backed up by The Zamora, where the Privy Council held generally that to exercise a power not granted by statute (such as a prerogative) the government must prove to the court that the exercise is justified.[37] The next limitation came in Attorney General v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Ltd,[38] where the House of Lords confirmed that no new prerogative powers could be created,[39] and that a statutory provision in an area where prerogative powers are in use "abridges the Royal Prerogative while it is in force to this extent – that the Crown can only do the particular thing under and in accordance with the statutory provisions, and that its prerogative power to do that thing is in abeyance".[40]

This principle of statutory superiority was extended in Laker Airways Ltd v Department of Trade,[41] where it was confirmed that prerogative powers could not be used to contradict a statutory provision, and that in situations to which the power and the statute both applied, the power could only be used to further the aim of the statute.[42] Another extension came with R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Fire Brigades Union,[43] where the Court of Appeal held that even if a statute had not yet come into force, the prerogative could not be used to alter this statute to "conflict with Parliament's wishes".[44]

Judicial review

The courts have traditionally been unwilling to subject prerogative powers to judicial review. Judges were only willing to state whether or not powers existed, not whether they had been used appropriately.[44] They therefore applied only the first of the Wednesbury tests: whether the use was illegal. Constitutional scholars such as William Blackstone consider this appropriate:

During the 1960s and 70s, this attitude began to change. In R v Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, ex parte Lain, the courts held that prerogative powers could be reviewed if they were being used to perform a "judicial" task; the issues at hand were ones that the courts were easily able to decide. The Laker Airways case lent further weight to the idea that prerogative powers should be subject to stronger judicial review, with Lord Denning saying that "...seeing that the prerogative is a discretionary power to be exercised for the public good, it follows that its exercise can be examined by the courts just as any other discretionary power which is vested in the executive." The most authoritative case on the matter is Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service, generally known as the GCHQ case. The House of Lords confirmed that the application of judicial review would be dependent on the nature of the government's powers, not their source. Foreign policy and national security powers are considered outside the scope of judicial review, while the prerogative of mercy is considered within it, as per R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Bentley.[46]


Abolition of the Royal Prerogative is not on the immediate horizon, and recent movements to abolish the role of the monarchy and its Royal Prerogative in government have been unsuccessful.[47] The Ministry of Justice undertook a "review of executive Royal Prerogative powers" in October 2009.[48] Former left wing Labour MP Tony Benn campaigned unsuccessfully for the abolition of the Royal Prerogative in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, arguing that all governmental powers in effect exercised on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and require parliamentary approval. Later governments argued that such is the breadth of topics covered by the Royal Prerogative that requiring parliamentary approval in each instance where the prerogative is currently used would overwhelm parliamentary time and slow the enactment of legislation.[49]

See also


  1. ^ Select Committee on Public Administration (16 March 2004). "Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report". Parliament of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c Carroll (2007) p. 246
  3. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 92
  4. ^ a b Holdsworth (1921) p. 554
  5. ^ Keen, Maurice Hugh England in the later middle ages: a political history Methuen & Co (1973) p281
  6. ^ Chrimes, S. B. Richard II's questions to the judges 1387 in Law Quarterly Review lxxii: 365–90 (1956)
  7. ^ 1 Parl. Hist. 555
  8. ^ Holdsworth (1921) p. 555
  9. ^ Holdsworth (1921) p. 556
  10. ^ Holdsworth (1921) p. 561
  11. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 87
  12. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 91
  13. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 106
  14. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 107
  15. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 109
  16. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 114
  17. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 115
  18. ^ [1985] AC 374
  19. ^ [1994] Q.B. 349
  20. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 116
  21. ^ Barnett (2009) p. 117
  22. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 120
  23. ^ [2008] UKHL 61
  24. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 121
  25. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 122
  26. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 118
  27. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 119
  28. ^ Ministry of Justice (2009) p.14
  29. ^ Ministry of Justice (2009) p. 4
  30. ^ Ministry of Justice (2009) p. 33
  31. ^ Carroll (2007) p. 251
  32. ^ Leyland (2007) p. 74
  33. ^ Bagehot (2001) p. 111
  34. ^ Public Administration Select Committee (2003). Press Notice no.19 (Report). Archived from the original on 5 Nov 2008. Retrieved 5 May 2010.
  35. ^ The Royal Household, Queen and Prime Minister
  36. ^ Leyland (2007)p. 67
  37. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 93
  38. ^ [1920] UKHL 1
  39. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 96
  40. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 97
  41. ^ [1977] 2 ALL ER 182
  42. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 99
  43. ^ 1995 2 AC 513
  44. ^ a b Loveland (2009) p. 101
  45. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 102
  46. ^ Loveland (2009) p. 108
  47. ^ Leyland (2007) p. 78
  48. ^ Ministry of Justice (2009) p. 1
  49. ^ David McKie (6 December 2000). "How ministers exercise arbitrary power". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 5 May 2010. 


External links

  • Official pamphlet, December 2012 ("The prerogative" paragraphs 2.4-2.9)
  • Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers: Final Report
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