The 'Crown Exemption Rule' and the legality of the 2020 Downing Street Christmas party

By Lee Xuan Yi


https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-59577129/


Several Downing Street gatherings during the height of lockdown in late 2020 have been thrown into public scrutiny. Cabinet Secretary Simon Case is leading an investigation into alleged parties on 27th November as well as 10th, 15th, and 18th December 2020. During this time, indoor social gatherings were explicitly banned by regulations due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, some have argued that a ‘Crown Exemption Rule’ applied, exempting the government from COVID restrictions.


What is the ‘Crown Exemption Rule’?


The ‘Crown Exemption Rule’ refers to the legal doctrine of Crown immunity, which holds that unless Parliament intends otherwise, onerous legislation does not apply to the Crown.


This is articulated in section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which states that COVID-19 regulations never apply to Crown Land (which includes Downing Street). The reason for this is obvious—during a pandemic, it is necessary to allow legal exemptions for the government to continue to function.


Did the rule apply to No. 10 at the time?


Holland argues that the COVID-19 regulations on gatherings were tailored to apply to individuals, not to land. [1] Land was only a factor when considering the extent of differences in restrictions—for instance, between indoor spaces or ‘public outdoor spaces’. Furthermore, the regulations explicitly include Crown land to which the public has access.


However, Holland acknowledges that the regulations are silent on the implications for individuals “in the public service of the Crown”. Regardless, it is far from clear whether the ‘Crown Exemption Rule’ did or should have applied at the time.





References:

[1] Charles Holland, ‘No, there is no Downing Street Christmas party loophole’ <https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/no-there-is-no-downing-street-christmas-party-loophole>