Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

The New Parliamentary Sovereignty

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

The New Parliamentary Sovereignty

Article excerpt

Is parliamentary sovereignty still a useful concept in the post-Charter era? Once a central principle of Canadian constitutional law, parliamentary sovereignty has come to be viewed by many as being of little more than historical interest. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the doctrine has received relatively little scholarly attention since the enactment of the Charter. But while it is undoubtedly true that the more absolute versions of parliamentary sovereignty did not survive the Charters entrenchment, we should not be too quick to dismiss the principle's relevance entirely. In this paper I suggest that some variant of parliamentary sovereignty continues to subsist in Canadian constitutional law. I also suggest that the study of parliamentary sovereignty reveals an important connection between the intensity of judicial review and the degree to which Parliament focusses on the constitutional issues raised by a law during the legislative process. Parliament can expand its sphere of autonomous decision-making power relative to courts by showing that it is proactive about securing and promoting constitutional rights.

La souverainete parlementaire est-elle toujours un concept utile dans V'ere posterieure a la Charte? Jadis un principe central du droit constitutionnel canadien, la souverainete parlementaire est maintenant consideree, par plusieurs, comme ayant rien de plus qu'un interet historique. II nest done peut-etre pas surprenant que la doctrine a fait l'objet de relativement peu d'attention savante depuis l'adoption de la Charte. Mais quoiqu'il soit sans aucun doute vrai que les versions les plus abso lues de la souverainete parlementaire n'ont pas survecu a la validation de la Charte, il ne faudrait pas rejeter trop rapidement l'interet du principe tout a fait. Dans cet article, je suggere qu'une variante de la souverainete parlementaire continue de subsister dans le droit constitutionnel canadien. Mon opinion est que Vetude de la souverainete parlementaire revele un lien important entre l'intensite de la revision judiciaire et le degre auquel le Parlement se concentre sur les questions constitutionnelles souleveespar une loipendant le processus legislatif. Le Parlement peut elargir la sphere de son pouvoir decisionnel autonome par rapport aux tribunaux en montrant qu'il est proactif quant a la protection et la promotion des droits constitutionnels.

I. Introduction

Is parliamentary sovereignty still a useful concept in the post-Charter (1) era? Once a central principle of Canadian constitutional law, parliamentary sovereignty has come to be viewed by many as being of little more than historical interest. (2) Charter rights place clear limits on Parliament's law-making powers, and the Charters "notwithstanding clause," a device ostensibly intended to preserve parliamentary sovereignty by allowing legislatures to enact laws inconsistent with Charter rights, has been invoked in only the rarest and most controversial of circumstances. (3) This suggests that, as a matter of both law and practice, parliamentary sovereignty has been severely limited. (4)

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the doctrine has received relatively little scholarly attention since the enactment of the Charter. But while it is undoubtedly true that the more absolute versions of parliamentary sovereignty did not survive the Charters entrenchment, there are at least two reasons why we should not be too quick to dismiss the principle's relevance entirely. First, the Supreme Court of Canada continues to decide cases on the basis of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Second, parliamentary sovereignty raises important questions about "the reality of Parliament's place within the constitutional order." (5) While it may not be useful to speak of Parliament as being "sovereign" in the traditional Diceyan sense, (6) engaging with some of the questions that parliamentary sovereignty raises can help us develop a more coherent account of Parliament's "constitutional functions. …

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