The Putney Debates 2019: The Courts — Friend or Foe?

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Gina Miller at the High Court
Gina Miller at the High Court

Since the EU Referendum, the courts have been called upon time and again to make politically charged judgments to break the constitutional impasse. They have been branded 'Enemies of the People' and fêted as defenders of centuries-old constitutional principles in equal measure. 

Now, as the UK approaches the most significant change to its constitutional settlement for decades, the Oxford Foundation for Law, Justice and Society revisits for the third time the historic Putney Debates, to ask:

                                    What role do we want for our judges in the 21st Century?

The unprecedented scrutiny that courts around the world find themselves under has led many to question their neutrality and the nature of their position in relation to the elected government of the day and the electorate.

Yet courts inevitably occupy a precarious position. They are criticized for their unelected status and perceived lack of accountability, yet in their role as impartial arbiters of the law, they are nevertheless duty-bound to uphold the law and constitution, which demands that they examine and contest the decisions made by our elected representatives in Parliament.

As international and supranational institutions become ever more influential, courts such as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have attained an uneasy prominence in determining issues that transcend national borders and restrict the actions of nation states. 

These insecure foundations and increasing influence have lifted the institution of the judiciary above the parapet of popular opinion as never before. The courts are now targets for attack from dissatisfied governments and social movements with a vision for a direct application of the will of the people, yet remain an indispensable pillar of our democratic system.

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The 2019 Putney Debates will be chaired by the renowned legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg and the founder of the New Putney Debates Professor Denis Galligan.

Our expert panellists include Court of Appeal judges, defenders of civil liberties, legal and political commentators, and constitutional experts, who will set out their vision over a series of debates spanning two days.

Audience members will have the opportunity to make their voices heard in a wide-ranging Q&A, as we interrogate the pressing questions of the day raised by this unprecedented scrutiny of our judges and institutions.

We will ask:

  • What role do we want for our judges in the 21st Century?
  • Why is judicial independence necessary and in what ways is it under attack?
  • What models exist for the best possible balance between judicial independence and accountability?

Join us as we revisit this landmark debate on the nature and terms of the UK’s democratic future. 

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Every generation has to fight the same battle again and again: there is no destination called justice or democracy.

That’s the interest of the Putney Debates and the English Revolution – we can draw from debates that occurred long before we were born things that are relevant to us and that will be equally relevant to our grandchildren.
Tony Benn
Watch Tony Benn on why the Putney Debates matter today