Carltona Ltd v Commissioners of Works: CA 1943

Ministers May Act through Civil Servants

The plaintiffs owned a factory which was to be requisitioned. They sought a judicial review of the lawfulness of the order making the requisition, saying that the 1939 Regulations had been implemented not by the Minister as required, but by an official within the Ministry of Works and Planning. They argued that as a holder of a delegated power, the Minister could not himself delegate its use (‘delegatus non potest delegare’).
Held: The court recognised the inappropriateness of the argument and answered it by holding that in law, as the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms had firmly established in practice, that civil servants acted not on behalf of but in the name of their ministers. The action of the official was not a delegated act; it was the act of the Minister.
A minister could speak through the alter ego of a civil servant in an affidavit. Civil servants are servants of the Crown, not of the ministers who are answerable to Parliament for the departments in which they serve.
Where a power or function is conferred on a Minister, in circumstances where, given administrative necessity, Parliament cannot have intended the Minister to exercise the power or function personally, an implied power of delegation (or agency) may be inferred.
Lord Greene MR said: ‘In the administration of government in this country the functions which are given to ministers (and constitutionally properly given to ministers because they are constitutionally responsible) are functions so multifarious that no minister could ever personally attend to them. To take the example of the present case no doubt there have been thousands of requisitions in this country by individual ministries. It cannot be supposed that this regulation meant that, in each case, the minister in person should direct his mind to the matter. The duties imposed upon ministers and the powers given to ministers are normally exercised under the authority of ministers by responsible officials of the department. Public business could not be carried on if that were not the case. Constitutionally, the decision of such an official is, of course, the decision of the minister. The minister is responsible. It is he who must answer before Parliament for anything that his officials have done under his authority, and, if for an important matter he selected an official of such junior standing that he could not be expected competently to perform the work, the minister would have to answer for that in Parliament. The whole system of departmental organisation and administration is based on the view that ministers, being responsible to Parliament, will see that important duties are committed to experienced officials. If they do not do that, Parliament is the place where complaint must be made against them.’
. . And: ‘It has been decided as clearly as anything can be decided that, where a regulation of this kind commits to an executive authority the decision of what is necessary or expedient and that authority makes the decision, it is not competent to the courts to investigate the grounds or the reasonableness of the decision in the absence of an allegation of bad faith. If it were not so it would mean that the courts would be made responsible for carrying on the executive government of this country on these important matters. Parliament, which authorises this regulation, commits to the executive the discretion to decide and with that discretion if bona fide exercised no court can interfere. All that the court can do is to see that the power which it is claimed to exercise is one which falls within the four corners of the powers given by the legislature and to see that those powers are exercised in good faith. Apart from that, the courts have no power at all to inquire into the reasonableness, the policy, the sense, or any other aspect of the transaction.’

Lord Greene MR
[1943] 2 All ER 560
Defence (General) Regulations 1939
England and Wales
Cited by:
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Lord . .
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CitedMcCafferty, Re Writ of Habeas Corpus CANI 16-Dec-2009
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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Litigation Practice, Administrative, Constitutional

Leading Case

Updated: 11 November 2021; Ref: scu.199259