14 May 2007

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

For the first years following Confederation in 1867, Canada had no federal supreme court, though it had the right to establish one under section 101 of what was then called the British North America Act. Not until 1875 was the Supreme Court of Canada set up, and even then it was not technically supreme. Those dissatisfied with rulings of this court could appeal one more level to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. After the Statute of Westminster of 1931, however, Canada was authorized to abolish such appeals which it did in 1949. Probably the most famous Privy Council ruling for this country was the 1929 "Persons" case, which established that women are persons under the law and thus eligible for Senate appointments.

Gradually most Commonwealth countries have abolished appeals to the Privy Council, including New Zealand as recently as 2004. However, appeals of cases decided before then have continued to make their way across two oceans to London for final decision. In what is apparently its last decision relevant to New Zealand, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has thrown out the murder convictions of David Bain, thereby calling into question the justice system of that country. Many New Zealanders see merit in cutting one more tie to the United Kingdom. However, the Campaign for the Privy Council is not persuaded, as indicated in the group's press release: Bain Decision Vindicates Privy Council Appeals. Supporters argue that "however good the New Zealand judiciary might be, there is nothing to equal an independent outside body to ensure quality control." Prime Minister Helen Clark defends the decision to abolish appeals and believes that access to a local Supreme Court may actually facilitate the appeal process.

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