[There is a short vocabulary comprehension exercise at the end of this post]

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the British State has exercised coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted.” With these words, the former UK Supreme Court Judge, Lord Jonathan Sumption, opened his virtual 2020 Cambridge Freshfields lecture to the Cambridge University Law Faculty on the 27th October 2020.

Lord Sumption, who retired from the Supreme Court bench in 2018, went on to warn – in the strongest possible terms - that the situation in the United Kingdom now contained the hallmarks of “a totalitarian society”. He said that the UK Government was now, essentially, “governing by decree”; in other words, by ministerial directives rather than by laws created, and properly scrutinised, by the UK Parliament. He said that the measures that the UK government had imposed since March 2020 had led to “a significant interference with personal freedom never seen before [in the UK] in peacetime.”

The UK government, of course, argues that the measures it has imposed are necessary in order to deal with the public health situation caused by the Covid-19/coronavirus pandemic, including the ‘lockdown laws’. Lord Sumption, however, claims that many – if not all – of these lockdown laws are unlawful. He claims that the legislation used to implement them use “general” words. His legal argument is that “fundamental rights cannot be overridden by general or ambiguous words” which are contained in an Act of Parliament. His legal argument is based on the famous English case of R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Simms [1999]] and, in particular, the judgment of Lord Hoffman in that case.

What fundamental rights is Lord Sumption talking about? He was very clear about this. He said, “There are few more basic rights than personal liberty.” It cannot be disputed that since March 2020, the personal liberties of people in the United Kingdom have been severely restricted. Of course, the government would certainly say that these restrictions are necessary to protect public health.

Lord Sumption also expressed other concerns. He said that one of the biggest dangers was people accepting the imposition of these “coercive powers” made by government decree – even if there is some kind of national emergency which is used to try and justify it. He said:

“This is how freedom dies. When societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat.”

In using these words, there was the echo of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Lord Sumption’s main argument here was that, once personal liberties and rights are given away, they are not easy to get back, even when the justification for taking them seems reasonable and proportionate.

[The full video of Lord Sumption’s address can be found here, starting at 09:47 secs: ]


Find a word or phrase in the text which means:

1. Using some kind of force to persuade people to do something they would not usually choose to do.

2. Typical characteristics or features of something.

3. A system of government that is centralised and dictatorial, rather than democratic.

4. An order from an official, such as a government minister, that has the force of law.

5. Examined, checked, or looked at thoroughly and carefully.

6. A collection or body of laws, such as Acts of Parliament, collected together.

7. Using some power or authority you have to cancel, reject, or ignore some decision or opinion.

8. On behalf of [someone]

9. A ruler or person who has a lot of power and often uses it to oppress people.

10. Of your own free will.

[There is an Answer Key below]

Answer Key

1. coercive

2. hallmarks

3. totalitarian

4. decree

5. scrutinised

6. legislation

7. overridden

8. ex parte

9. despot

10. voluntarily

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2020

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