Privy Council

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Related to Privy councillors: Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Privy Counsellor

Privy Council

The Privy Council is the British Crown's private council. It is composed of more than three hundred members, including cabinet members, distinguished scholars, judges, and legislators. Once a powerful body, it has lost most of the judicial and political functions it exercised since the middle of the seventeenth century and has largely been replaced by the Cabinet.

The Privy Council derived from the King's Council, which was created during the Middle Ages. In 1540 the Privy Council came into being as a small executive committee that advised the king and administered the government. It advised the sovereign on affairs of state and the exercise of the royal prerogative. It implemented its power through royal proclamations, orders, instructions, and informal letters, and also by giving directions to and receiving reports from the judges who traveled the circuits, hearing cases in cities and towns, twice a year. It concerned itself with public order and security, the economy, public works, public authorities and corporations, local government, Ireland, the Channel Islands, the colonies, and foreign affairs.

The inner circle of advisers in the Privy Council met in the royal chamber or cabinet and was therefore called the cabinet council. In the eighteenth century, the cabinet became the council for the prime minister, the leader of Parliament. The United States adopted the cabinet idea, though its legal status is not identified in the Constitution. Cabinet members are presidential advisers who serve as Executive Branch department heads.

The power of the Privy Council disappeared between 1645 and 1660 during the English Civil War and the government of Oliver Cromwell. It never recovered its former position. Long policy debates shifted to Parliament, and important executive decisions went to committees. In modern days members of the Privy Council rarely meet as a group, delegating their work to committees.

The lord president of the council, who is a member of the cabinet, is the director of the Privy Council Office. The most important committee is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which comprises all members of the council who have held high judicial office. Usually, however, three to five Lords of Appeal sit to hear appeals from the United Kingdom, the British Crown colonies, and members of the Commonwealth. The committee does not give a judgment but prepares a report to the sovereign, and its decision may be implemented in an Order in Council. The work of the committee has diminished because it rarely hears ecclesiastical appeals and because many Commonwealth countries have abolished the right of appeal.

Further readings

Lehrfreund, Saul. 1999. "The Death Penalty and the Continuing Role of the Privy Council." New Law Journal (August 20).

Owen, D.H.O. 1992. "The Privy Council and the Professional Foul." Medico-Legal Journal 60 (spring).

Cross-references

Curia Regis.

See: bench

Privy Council (PC)

the great council of state comprising the sovereign and the councillors. Councillors are addressed as ‘The Right Honourable’. The cabinet discharges the advice function, and a judicial committee sits as the highest court of appeal for some Commonwealth states such as New Zealand and formerly for Canada and Australia. It now has power to adjudicate on certain aspects of devolution, notably under the Scotland Act 1998 and to declare legislation incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998.

PRIVY COUNCIL, Eng. law. A council of state composed of the king and of such persons as he may select.

References in periodicals archive ?
I told him there were more than 400 Privy Councillors and I wasn't the shop steward.
See Canada, Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (MacDonald Commission), Report (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1978); United Kingdom, Committee of Privy Councillors, Falkland Islands Review, Cmnd.
But he said it would be like the Franks inquiry after the Falklands War - held behind closed doors and conducted by Privy Councillors, a select group of senior politicians.
What the resolution said was that there should be an inquiry now, with an open, public inquiry conducted by seven privy councillors into a military operation that's still going on.
Earlier, Mr Howard said his proposals were based on a report commissioned by former Home Secretary David Blunkett from a cross-party panel of Privy Councillors.
The committee of Privy Councillors was established by Mr Blair on February 3, shortly after the publication of the Hutton Report, which cleared ministers of distorting intelligence on Iraq's supposed WMD.
Well here's some advice Ma'am that your Privy Councillors should be giving you.