The legal basis of government gives rise to the principle of legality, sometimes referred to as the rule of law. This may be expressed as a number of propositions, as described below.
(1) The existence or non-existence of a power or duty is a matter of law and not of fact, and so must be determined by reference either to the nature of the legal personality of the body in question and the capacities that go with it, or to some enactment or reported case. As far as the capacities that go with legal personality are concerned, many public bodies are incorporated by statute and so statutory provisions will define and limit their legal capacities. Individuals who are public office-holders have the capacities that go with the legal personality that they have as natural persons. The Crown is a corporation sole or aggregate and so has general legal capacity, including (subject to some statutory limitations and limitations imposed by European law) the capacity to enter into contracts and to own and dispose of property. The fact of a continued undisputed exercise of a power by a public body is immaterial, unless it points to a customary power exercised from time immemorial. In particular, the existence of a power cannot be proved by the practice of a private office.
(2) The argument of state necessity is not sufficient to establish the existence of a power or duty which would entitle a public body to act in a way that interferes with the rights or liberties of individuals. However, the common law does recognise that in case of extreme urgency, when the ordinary machinery of the state cannot function, there is a justification for the doing of acts needed to restore the regular functioning of the machinery of government.
(3) If effect is to be given to the doctrine that the existence or non-existence of a power or duty is a matter of law, it should be possible for the courts to determine whether or not a particular power or duty exists, to define its...
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