R v Adams


[2020] UKSC 19

Supreme Court

Easter Term

On appeal from: [2018] NICA 8


Lord Kerr

Lady Black

Lord Lloyd-Jones

Lord Kitchin

Lord Burnett

(Appellant) (Northern Ireland)


Sean Doran QC

Donal Sayers BL

(Instructed by PJ McGrory & Co Solicitors)


Tony McGleenan QC

Paul McLaughlin BL

(Instructed by Director of Public Prosecutions, Public Prosecution Service)

Heard on 19 November 2019

Lord Kerr

( with whom Lady Black, Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Kitchin and Lord Burnett agree)


From 1922 successive items of legislation authorised the detention without trial of persons in Northern Ireland, a regime commonly known as internment. Internment was last introduced in that province on 9 August 1971. On that date and for some time following it, a large number of persons were detained. The way in which internment operated then was that initially an interim custody order (ICO) was made where the Secretary of State considered that an individual was involved in terrorism. On foot of the ICO that person was taken into custody. The person detained had to be released within 28 days unless the Chief Constable referred the matter to a commissioner. The detention continued while the commissioner considered the matter. If satisfied that the person was involved in terrorism, the commissioner would make a detention order. If not so satisfied, the release of the person detained would be ordered.


An ICO was made in respect of the appellant on 21 July 1973. The order was signed by a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. The matter was referred to a commissioner by an Assistant Chief Constable on 10 August 1973 and the commissioner decided that the appellant should continue to be detained.


The appellant tried to escape from the place where he was detained on 24 December 1973. He was convicted of the offence of attempting to escape from lawful custody on 20 March 1975 and sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment. He tried to escape again on 27 July 1974 and was convicted of a like offence on 18 April 1975 when a sentence of three years was passed, to be served consecutively to that imposed a month earlier.

The issue

At stake on this appeal is the validity of the ICO made on 21 July 1973. Although an ICO could be signed by a Secretary of State, a Minister of State or an Under Secretary of State, the relevant legislation provided that the statutory power to make the ICO arose “where it appears to the Secretary of State” that a person was suspected of being involved in terrorism. There is no evidence that the Secretary of State personally considered whether the appellant was involved in terrorism. On the assumption (which is common to the parties to the appeal) that he did not, the question arises whether the ICO was validly made.


The reason that this matter has come to light so many years after the appellant's convictions is that under the “30-year rule” an opinion of JBE Hutton QC (later Lord Hutton of Bresagh) was uncovered. The 30-year rule is the informal name given to laws in the United Kingdom and other countries which provide that certain government documents will be released publicly 30 years after they were created.


Mr Hutton was the legal adviser to the Attorney General when he gave his opinion. It was dated 4 July 1974 and responded to a request for directions in relation to a proposed prosecution of the appellant and three others involved in the attempted escape on 24 December 1973. Mr Hutton concluded that a court would probably hold that it would be a condition precedent to the making of an ICO that the Secretary of State should have considered the matter personally.

The proceedings

The appellant became aware of Mr Hutton's opinion in October 2009. He had not appealed his convictions before then. Some time after learning of the opinion, he applied for an extension of time in which to appeal his convictions. That application was granted by Gillen LJ on 20 April 2017.


The appellant's appeal was heard by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal (Morgan LCJ, Sir Ronald Weatherup and Sir Reginald Weir) on 16 January 2018. On 14 February 2018, the Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed the appeal, the judgment of the court being delivered by Sir Ronald Weatherup: [2018] NICA 8. An application for permission to appeal to this court was dismissed by the Court of Appeal on 16 April 2018 but the court certified the following question as one constituting a point of law of public general importance: “Whether the making of an interim custody Order under article 4 of the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 [SI 1972/1632 (NI 15)] required the personal consideration by the Secretary of State of the case of the person subject to the order or whether the Carltona principle operated to permit the making of such an Order by a Minister of State.”


The reference to the Carltona principle” here relates to the decision of the Court of Appeal in Carltona Ltd v Comrs of Works [1943] 2 All ER 560. In that case it had been argued that an order for the requisition of a factory under the Defence (General) Regulations 1939, which was to be made by the Commissioners of Works, should have been made by a commissioner personally. The First Commissioner of Works was the Minister of Works and Planning and the decision was made by the Assistant Secretary in that Ministry on behalf of the Commissioners of Works. The Court of Appeal rejected the argument, Lord Greene MR observing, at p 563:

“In the administration of government in this country the functions which are given to ministers (and constitutionally properly given to ministers because they are constitutionally responsible) are functions so multifarious that no minister could ever personally attend to them. To take the example of the present case no doubt there have been thousands of requisitions in this country by individual ministers. It cannot be supposed that this regulation meant that, in each case, the minister in person should direct his mind to the matter. The duties imposed upon ministers and the powers given to ministers are normally exercised under the authority of the ministers by responsible officials of the department. Public business could not be carried on if that were not the case.”


Sir Ronald Weatherup considered that the Carltona principle had been amplified and reinforced in cases which were decided after Mr Hutton had given his opinion. That opinion had been strongly influenced by the consideration that deprivation of liberty was a matter of the utmost gravity and that scrupulous compliance with the precise enjoinder in article 4 of the 1972 Order was required. Sir Ronald noted that subsequent case law suggested that the seriousness of the subject matter was not to be regarded as determinative. It was a factor relevant to whether Parliament had intended to disapply the Carltona principle but was not decisive of that issue. The court relied for that conclusion on In re Golden Chemicals Products Ltd [1976] Ch 300 and R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex p Oladehinde [1991] 1 AC 254.


In the Golden case, what was in issue was the provision in the Companies Act 1967 which stated that, if it appeared to the Secretary of State that it was expedient in the public interest that a corporate body should be wound up, he could present a petition for its winding-up. That power had been exercised by the Inspector of Companies in the Department of Trade acting for the Secretary of State. It was held that there was no obligation on the Secretary of State to exercise the power personally. It had been argued that the exercise of the power involved a serious invasion of the freedom or property rights of the subject and that it should be exercised only by the Secretary of State in whom it had been invested. Brightman J accepted that the power given to the Secretary of State “was of a most formidable nature which may cause serious damage to the reputation or financial stability of the company” (p 310). But he rejected the notion that a true distinction required to be drawn as a matter of law between powers which the minister must exercise personally and those which can be exercised by an officer of his department, if that distinction was based on the seriousness of the subject matter.


It is important to recognise that Brightman J's judgment was based on his rejection of the claim that a distinction should be drawn as a matter of law between those cases in which the exercise of the power would have serious and grave consequences for those affected by it and cases where such consequences were not expected. Sir Ronald Weatherup said this about Brightman J's judgment at para 30:

“This court is satisfied that the seriousness of the subject matter is a consideration in determining whether a power must be exercised by the Minister personally, although as Brightman J found, it is not a determining consideration.” (Emphasis added)


It appears to me that Brightman J did not find that the seriousness of the subject matter was a consideration to which regard must be had in deciding whether a power must be exercised by a Minister personally. To the contrary, he held that that was not a consideration which was relevant at all in deciding whether the power should be exercised by the Minister or by an officer in his department. This, I believe, is clear from the following passage at p 310 of Brightman J's judgment:

“If there is a true distinction which must be drawn as a matter of law between powers which the Minister must exercise personally and those which can be exercised by an officer of his department, I might well come to the view that the power given by section 35 is so potentially damaging that it falls into the former category, however burdensome that may be to a Secretary of State personally. But is such a distinction to be drawn? I find...

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