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Some say that a monarch cannot withhold Royal Assent to a bill passed by the parliament. Really?

What happens if they refuse to grant assent to any law passed by the parliament unless they are personally satisfied with the law — effectively trying to coerce the parliament into making such laws as the monarch wishes?

In such a case, would the parliament depose the monarch? Would it replace them by a more obedient one?

But if the parliament can just do that, what is the point of seeking Royal Assent in the first place? What's the point of not effecting a passed bill straight away instead?

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    What Parliament would do is a political, not a legal, question. What they can do is probably a duplicate of this question.
    – JBentley
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:38
  • @JBentley The question is what is the point (from legal point of view), not what anyone can or would do.
    – Greendrake
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:40
  • I read "What happens if they refuse to grant assent" as what can be done about it. And you explicitly asked what Parliament would do in the 3rd paragraph. Perhaps you should edit it down to just the final paragraph?
    – JBentley
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:41
  • @JBentley There's no need to literally take any question mark in the text as the question being asked. Focus on the title. What's in the text is just a style of expression, a way of showing where the title question comes from.
    – Greendrake
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:43
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    @Greendrake there's no point to ask questions that aren't there to be answered.
    – Tiger Guy
    Sep 16, 2022 at 13:28

3 Answers 3

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Because rituals are important

You might well ask what is the point of the ceremony of the Black Rod:

Black Rod is best known for their part in the ceremonies surrounding the State Opening of Parliament and the Speech from the throne. They summon the Commons to attend the speech and lead them to the Lords. As part of the ritual, the doors to the chamber of the House of Commons are slammed in the approaching Black Rod's face. This is to symbolise the Commons' independence of the Sovereign. Black Rod then strikes the door three times with the staff, and is then admitted and issues the summons of the monarch to attend.

Societies are not run by laws - they are run by convention and custom.

Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. and yet... and yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

The purpose of Royal Assent is to preserve the convention and custom that the United Kingdom is ruled by a King to avoid dealing with the reality that it's ruled by the people just like you and me which is and should be a truly terrifying thought. This is not a dig at politicians, judges, and civil servants: it applies equally to your doctor, the engineer who designed your house and the plumber who fitted your toilet.

What would happen if it was refused?

Well, a constitutional crisis would happen. The UK and most other Commonwealth countries have had a few; they seem to find a solution. However, it's a crisis primarily because no one knows how it will be resolved in advance.

This particular crisis is unlikely to arise:

  • the last time it happened was in 1708 by Queen Anne who was acting on the advice of her ministers (who were answerable to Parliament for their actions).
  • the last time it happened against the wishes of the government was in 1696 by William III.
  • the last time a monarch considered it was in 1914 by George V who decided it should not be done without "convincing evidence that it would avert a national disaster, or at least have a tranquillising effect on the distracting conditions of the time".
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Jurisdiction:

The monarch, in its capacity of granting royal assent, is a component of Parliament. So a "bill passed by the parilament" by definition means a bill which has had royal assent. If there is no royal assent, then the bill does not pass. The claim that a monarch cannot withhold Royal Assent is false. They can withhold it. By convention, they do not. The repercussions of them refusing Royal Assent would be political rather than legal and, short of some judicial creativity, would require a non-legal solution.

There is no particular point to this other than the fact that this is how it has been done historically, it has never caused a problem so far, and the UK prefers to keep the tradition. Presumably if it ever caused a problem in the future then it would be reconsidered.

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  • If assent is never expected to be withheld, what's the point of it?
    – Greendrake
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:45
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    @Greendrake If ain't broke, don't fix it. And some like to imagine that the monarch acts as a last independent bastion against an abusive parliament, so as mentioned in Dale's answer maybe it would be invoked to avert a national disaster. A parliament has basically never gone so completely off the rails as to make this relevant for the last few hundred years. If suddenly Parliament were to legalize slavery or declare war against the US one might imagine a lack of royal assent, but as even a Brexit level event doesn't qualify it's almost impossible to imagine a realistic option. Sep 16, 2022 at 8:27
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Jurisdiction:

First, I quote Maurice Sunkin's Public Law Text Cases Materials (4th edn, 2019), page 34.

Withholding Royal Assent (for example, because the Queen had a moral objection to something in the bill) would be undemocratic. Conclusion: there is a convention.31

31 Matters may be somewhat more complicated. If you want to delve deeper, see N.W. Barber, ‘Can Royal Assent Be Refused on the Advice of the Prime Minister?’, UK Constitutional Law Blog, 25 September 2013, http:// ukconstitutionallaw.org.

I quote Keith Ewing, Constitutional and Administrative Law (18th edn, 2022), pages 21-2.

The monarch’s legal power to refuse Assent was last exercised by Queen Anne in 1708, when (apparently with the approval of her ministers and without objection by Parliament) Assent was refused to the Scottish Militia Bill.120 In the Irish crisis of 1912–14, the Unionists suggested to George V that he should withhold Assent from the Bill to give home rule to Ireland. The Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, advised the King against this and the Royal Assent was granted.121 While the Queen may not of her own initiative refuse the Royal Assent, the position might be different if ministers advised her to do so, although this advice would have to be defended in Parliament and, depending on the circumstances, could be highly controversial. 122

120 Hearn, The Government of England, p 61.
121 Jennings, Cabinet Government, pp 395–400. Cf Brazier, Constitutional Practice, pp 193–6. See too: Twomey, The Veiled Sceptre.
122 The highly acclaimed 2014 play by Mike Bartlett, Charles III, has as its premise King Charles III exercising his refusal of Assent to a Bill limiting press freedom, with significant consequences. A real-world example arose in the fraught process of negotiations with the EU over withdrawal, when Parliament twice passed primary legislation obliging the Government to seek an extension of membership which it did not wish to seek (see ch 6). Could the Prime Minister constitutionally have advised the Queen to refuse the Royal Assent to such Bills? It is well arguable that such advice could have been given, although whether the Queen was then bound to accept that advice – contrary as it would have been to the expressed wishes of both Houses of Parliament – is a further vexed question. The obvious and considerable constitutional ramifications of such steps have usually caused politicians to avoid such questions having to be asked, and it is a testament to the political tensions over Brexit that they were more seriously considered than at any time in recent history.

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  • Fine. So what? What is the point of royal assent?
    – Greendrake
    Sep 16, 2022 at 10:19

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