COVID-19 emergency legislation is often fast-tracked, approved without much parliamentary scrutiny, expanding executive powers while limiting individual rights. Can sunset clauses provide a counterbalance by guaranteeing the temporary nature of the COVID-19 emergency legislation? Experience from anti-terrorism legislation suggests that sunset clauses may reinject democratic accountability, but only if there is a high quality and evidence-based review practice.
Legislative responses to emergencies
The effects of the September 11 (2001) attacks were felt well beyond the United States. The ‘global war on terror’ led many countries to usher in emergency laws to combat the threat posed by terrorism. The Canadian Anti-terrorism Act, for instance, introduced a range of new offences and authorized new intrusive powers, such as preventive arrest. For its part, the UK government introduced the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (2001). Under the act, significant powers were transferred to the government with the effect that individual rights and liberties could be circumvented as a matter of course. For instance, the police can forcefully obtain fingerprints and other identifying features from an individual to ascertain their identity, and the government may regulate telephone companies and internet providers to retain data for the purpose of national security.
The logic of sunset clauses
It is at the juncture between short-term responses and longer-term consequences that sunset clauses find pride of place in emergency legislation. Sunset clauses are provisions that determine the expiry of a law or regulation within a predetermined period. They provide that at a certain point in time, specific and often the most intrusive provisions on civil liberties cease to have effect. In this way sunset clauses seek to ensure the temporal nature measures that extend the reach of government powers or limit human rights,
Because sunset clauses provide for evaluation of the legislation passed, they can help to claw back a degree of democratic oversight and legislative scrutiny. For some, the requirement to respond in haste to an emergency provides the justification for fast-tracking law and sidelining normal processes of parliamentary scrutiny. The review processes attached to sunset clauses are thus a way of reinjecting a degree of scrutiny and oversight in ways not possible when emergency laws are expedited through fast-tracked processes. In the UK, for example, the 2001 Act required annual renewal of the provisions allowing indefinite detention. It required the Home Secretary to appoint someone to review the operation of that part of the act and report annually.
Sunset clauses, at least in theory, are thus a way of enabling countries to respond to immediate threats while at the same time ensuring that expanded powers and limitations on rights do not become the new normal.
Sunset clauses and COVID-19
The use of sunset clauses in terrorism legislation is instructive when thinking about the inclusion of similar provisions in emergency legislation adopted in response to COVID-19.
The speed of response has been paramount to limiting the effects of COVID-19, justifying, in turn, the passing of fast-tracked legislation in ways that ‘differ’ from normal processes of parliamentary scrutiny. Invoking fear and uncertainty, it is the unknown and the unpredictability of the virus, as with the threat of terrorism, which has legitimized the widening of executive powers while at the same time limiting individual rights.
Yet, the risks associated with the fast-tracked nature of legislation, the broadening of state power and curtailment of civil rights and liberties in the context of terrorism, are equally present in the COVID-19 era. Like the threat to terrorism, COVID-19 shows little signs of desisting and retreating into distant memory. At what point, therefore, should the emergency response to COVID-19 desist to prevent the ‘new norm’ becoming one of government overreach and restricted rights?
As with the terrorism legislation, sunset clauses are seen as part of the answer. Indeed, in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Singapore, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia sunset clauses have featured in emergency legislation, as documented in the WFD Pandemic Democracy Tracker. This, in turn, reflects an inherent confidence in what sunset clauses can achieve and a faith in the theoretical potential of sunset clauses being realized in practice. But is this confidence justified?
The Canadian experience with anti-terrorism legislation helps us answer this question. The Canadian House of Commons voted against renewing the provisions prior to their expiry under the terms of the sunset clause. Central to this decision was a detailed hearing before parliamentary committees examining the operation of the legislation and practice. By contrast, in the UK, notwithstanding the sunset clause in the 2001 Act, the emergency legislation remained in place until replaced by the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. This is not in any way unique. The 2001 Patriot Act in the US remains in force even today.
A comparison between the UK and Canada shows that the practical impact of sunset clauses is often determined by the quality of debate that precedes the discussion about whether to repeal emergency legislation. Indeed, a Law Commission report pointed out that the UK civil society group JUSTICE was “sceptical about the quality of debate triggered by the sunset clauses in the UK Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, noting that the annual debates have been rushed affairs and seem to offer little of the substantive scrutiny that is required in respect of such sweeping measures (indefinite detention of foreign nationals and control orders respectively).”
We cannot simply commend those countries that have included sunset provisions in their COVID-19 legislation. We must think about how to ensure that they live up to their promise. This ought to involve drawing lessons from positive examples of Post-Legislative Scrutiny so as to help inform how the reviews of emergency legislation will play out. A few questions would be particularly relevant.:
- Who is reviewing the legislation?
- Who is being invited to participate in the review? Are human rights groups, civil society and academics permitted to contribute?
- What is being examined? Is it, for example, technical aspects, or the impact of emergency measures?
- If the latter, the impact on whom? For example, what role does age, class, or gender play in the analysis?
- Is it merely primary legislation being examined, or also secondary legislation adopted under, for instance, enabling Acts?
- To what extent are lessons from other contexts part of this analysis? Will there be a gender-sensitive approach to scrutiny?
Sunset clauses in practice
Notwithstanding the theoretical merits of sunset clauses, their effect in practice is often determined by the review processes. While they can reinject democratic accountability and evidence-based review, they can also serve merely to rubber stamp existing powers. They can exist on paper but have little impact in practice. They can be renewed on an ongoing basis, often with little or insufficient scrutiny. Thus, adherence to sunset clauses must itself be scrutinized and lessons must be drawn from other contexts to inform the review processes that accompany them.
This is the third blogpost in a series discussing to what extend COVID-19 emergency powers constitute a threat to democracy. The series emerges from the recent digital conference co-organized by the Institute of Advanced legal Studies of the University of London and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). This blog is by Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Adviser at WFD, and Sean Molloy, Lecturer in Law at Northumbria University. To join the conversation on Twitter, use the hashtag #COVIDDemocracy.