Pickin v British Railways Board [1974] AC 765

Key point

  • Courts do not have the power to examine proceedings in Parliament and to nullify the effects an Act of Parliament where it has been enacted fraudulently

Facts

  • The British Railways Act 1968, introduced as a private bill, ended the rule that land under abandoned railways passed into the possession of the adjoining owner (here this would be P)
  • Pickin (P) claimed that the British Railways Board (BRB) misled Parliament into passing the Act of 1968, by ways of a false recital and thus the court should grant a declaration to nullify the resulting benefit to BRB by requiring BRB to hold the benefit on trust for P
  • A distinction between public and private Acts of Parliament was proposed by P, that it may be open to the court to nullify a private Act, even if not so for public Acts
  • The Court of Appeal had held for P the claimant

Held (House of Lords)

  • Appeal allowed; P’s claim was rejected

Lord Reid

  • ‘all that a court of justice can look to is the parliamentary roll. They see that an Act has passed both Houses of Parliament and that it has received the Royal Assent, and no court of justice can inquire into the manner in which it was introduced into Parliament, what was done previously to its being introduced, or what passed in Parliament during the various stages of its progress.’: p. 786–87
  • ’The function of the court is to construe and apply the enactments of Parliament … The court has no concern with the manner in which Parliament or its officers carrying out its Standing Orders perform these functions’: p. 787
  • ’For a century or more both Parliament and the Courts have been careful not to act so as to cause conflict between them. Any such investigations as the Respondent seeks could easily lead to such a conflict, and I would only support it if compelled to do so by clear authority.’: p. 788

Lord Morris

  • ’When an enactment is passed there is finality unless and until it is amended or repealed by Parliament’: p. 789
  • ’It must be for Parliament to decide whether its decreed procedures have in fact been followed’: p. 790

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

  • ‘for many years Parliament and the courts have each been astute to respect the sphere of action and the privileges of the other—Parliament, for example, by its sub judice rule, the courts by taking care to exclude evidence which might amount to infringement of parliamentary privilege’: p. 799
  • Any trial of the issues would impeach proceedings in Parliament, infringing the Bill of Rights and parliamentary privilege: p. 799–800
  • The distinction sought to be drawn between public and private Acts by the claimant breaks down when one considers that there are Hybrid Bills, which are public bills that affect some private rights: p. 800

Commentary

  • This case demonstrates the separation of powers present in the UK, with the courts not being able to directly scrutinise Parliament, even they may have grounds to believe that it made a mistake in its’ proceedings
  • In the Court of Appeal, Lord Denning MR expressed a different view: ‘it is the function of the court to see that the procedure of Parliament itself is not abused, and that undue advantage is not taken of it. In so doing the court is not trespassing on the jurisdiction of Parliament itself. It is acting in aid of Parliament and, I might add, in aid of justice.’