This Case of Proclamations, which took place in the 17th century, was a fundamental turning point in the future of democracy in the United Kingdom. The case concerned the question of whether the monarch could change existing laws without the consent of Parliament.
The two main actors in this case were Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of Common Pleas, and King James I. The King wanted to prohibit the making of wheat and new buildings that he found to be against the law.
The fundamental disagreement lay in the differing perspectives held by each respective actor. King James I believed that a King is given power by God and should only answer to God. Sir Edward Coke supported the idea that common law was superior to the King’s will.
Royal Prerogative can be difficult to define, but it is one of the most important aspects of the UK government and constitution. Royal Prerogative is what allows ministers the power to enforce decisions centred on, among other things, deploying armed force, development of international treaties, and granting honours. Royal Prerogative was defined by the Ministry of Justice in 2009 as:
‘The scope of the Royal prerogative power is notoriously difficult to determine. It is clear that the existence and extent of the power is a matter of common law, making the courts the final arbiter of whether a particular type of prerogative power exists. The difficulty is that there are many prerogative powers for which there is no recent judicial authority and sometimes no judicial authority at all.’ (Ministry of Justice, 2009)
It was resolved that ‘the King hath no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him.’ This meant that, without the approval of Parliament, the King did not have the authority to change any part of common law or to create, by his proclamation, an offence that had not been an offence before. Sir Edward Coke, along with other judges, decided that the King should not have the power to create new offences or stop buildings being put up. If something had been legal previously, the King could not declare it suddenly outlawed without Parliament’s consent.
In effect, this case served to establish the separation of the monarchy and Parliament. The driving argument, supported by Sir Coke, was that laws being introduced should be reviewed and discussed by multiple people, allowing room for differing perspectives. Sir Coke believed such decisions should not be left to a single person.
Smartly, Sir Coke had prevented the King from sitting as a judge on the grounds that that he was not educated in law and, therefore, was unequipped to make decisions on legal matters. Coke’s decision was based on ‘law and reason.’ According to historical records, King James I was so angry with Sir Coke that he threatened to hit him, which incited a fear in Sir Coke so great that he fell on his face and begged for pity.
Sir Edward Coke sought this separation in order to create constitutional grounds for the separation of power so that abuse of power could be avoided in legal matters; in other words, Sir Coke was concerned with the principle of upholding the constitution.