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Hansard in use: the courts

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(post written in 2022, when Jake was a Judicial Assistant at the UK Supreme Court) 

I am one of the eight Judicial Assistants at the UK Supreme Court. Our job varies, but fundamentally we work to assist the Supreme Court Justices in their work, for example by carrying out research for speeches, producing press summaries of judgments and writing summaries of cases seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.


UK Supreme Court internal photo
A court room in the UK Supreme Court

Searching Hansard 

One way or another, Hansard frequently finds its way into our work. For example, a colleague was recently tasked by a Judge to scour Hansard for discussion of a particular provision contained within an Act of Parliament passed over 75 years ago. We were amazed at how easy it was to access the relevant debates online. The ability to access Hansard’s resources from our desks greatly assists us in our work for the Supreme Court.  

We were fortunate last year to receive training from Hansard’s very own Guy Mathers on how to make the most of Hansard. Guy showed us how to locate relevant materials quickly, engaging our competitive streaks through races to find debates and quotations. He also revealed the fascinating challenges posed for a Hansard reporter: how does the parliamentary record capture, for example, the various non-verbal cues to help make sense of what was said in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate? 

Hansard in the speechwriting process 

I have found Hansard particularly helpful in sourcing interesting material for use by the Justices in speeches. One example that stands out is a speech I helped Lady Rose to write on a provision in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, setting out the circumstances in which the Supreme Court can depart from retained EU case law. Using Hansard, I was able to find material that revealed why the particular test had been preferred, and understand why some MPs had opposed it. The availability of all the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill debates online was integral to the process of researching the speech, even if there were rather a lot of them to go through...!  


UK Supreme Court external photo
UK Supreme Court

Legislative status 

The use of Hansard by the courts in deciding cases has long been a matter of debate. For hundreds of years the general rule was that no recourse whatsoever could be had to such materials. In the landmark 1992 case of Pepper v Hart, however, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (the predecessor to the Supreme Court) ruled that the courts may refer to reports of the legislative debates on a Bill for the purpose of ascertaining the meaning of a provision, but in very limited circumstances. This may only happen when the legislative provision is, “ambiguous or obscure or [where] the literal meaning…leads to an absurdity”; and even then, only clear statements made by the Minister promoting the Bill as to the meaning of the ambiguous or obscure words will be permitted. 

Interpretation of meaning 

The reasons for this hesitancy to use pre-legislative materials such as Hansard lie with the courts’ constitutional role in respect of legislation, which is faithfully to interpret the meaning of the words passed by Parliament. If Judges jump too readily to Hansard to uncover what was said during a Bill’s passage, there is a risk of too much weight being given to what Ministers thought a particular provision meant during its passage through Parliament, which may not be the same as what it actually means on an objective interpretation. 

Hansard is therefore treated with care by the courts, but in an appropriate case can play a significant role. Debate will no doubt continue on the appropriate place for Hansard in the judicial process, but what is certain is that future generations of Judicial Assistants will continue to be grateful for the reporters’ skilful work.  

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