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The Privy Council and the Royal Charters: how does it all work?

Privy Council (1)This is the week of the Privy Council and Press Charters.  The Privy Council is due to meet on 9 October 2013 and it seems that the the PressBoF Royal Charter [doc] may be on the agenda.  A Committee of the Privy Council has been considering this charter and may be formally reporting to the Privy Council. 

It had been assumed that the draft Royal Charter on Press Regulation [pdf] which was agreed between the three main parties and approved by Parliament on 18 March 2013 (“the Cross Party Charter”) would also be on the agenda although recent reports suggest that consideration of this Charter may be adjourned to a further meeting on 30 October 2013.

There has been some confusion about the role of the Privy Council and the procedure for consideration of the two charters.  It is important to make a number of basic points:

  • The Privy Council is a body set up under the “Royal Prerogative”. It is not bound by any rules of procedure. Indeed, it appears that there are no rules, for example, as to its quorum (although this is conventionally treated as being three, with four members usually in attendance) along with the Queen.
  • The Privy Council is not a deliberative body. Its meetings are short and formal – lasting only for a few minutes with everyone remaining standing.  Discussion or deliberation does not take place.
  • By convention, the “Queen in Council” always follows the advice of her ministers.
  • In other words, the Privy Council is, in substance (although not in form) a sub-committee of the Cabinet. It executes the orders of Ministers.

The best and most comprehensive recent treatment of the subject can be found in Patrick O’Connor QC’s 2009 JUSTICE paper, “The Constitutional Role of the Privy Council and the Prerogative” [pdf]

One of the functions of the Privy Council is to “incorporate” bodies of people by Royal Charter.  It has, since medieval times, granted over at 1000 such charters – to bodies such as trading companies, Universities, local authorities, and professional or trade organisations.  Until the Companies Acts this was the only way of creating “corporations” and was used to create bodies such as the East India Company.

The grant of Royal Charters is not limited or circumscribed by any fixed rules of procedure. As the Privy Council website makes clear, bodies applying for royal charters are, in modern times, normally expected to meet a number of criteria.

Under the heading, “Applying for a Royal Charter” the website mentions two formal stages of the procedure:

(1)  A formal charter application by petition to the Sovereign in Council.

(2)  Publication of the formal application to allow interested parties to comment or lodge counter-petitions.

The website does not set out the procedural steps which are taken thereafter. There are no published (or, apparently, unpublished) rules of procedure. But it appears that the normal procedure after publication is for a Petition to be considered by a Privy Council Committee before a decision is taken as to whether to present the Charter to the Privy Council for formal approval.

This application process (as the website makes clear) applies to “members of a unique” profession.  It has no application to the grant of “public charters”, such as those for universities, local authorities or similar bodies.  The proposed Charters for recognition of a press self-regulator have nothing relevant in common with the usual run of “professional body” charter applications and there is no reason why they should be subject to the procedures outlined on the Privy Council website.

In short, all that the Privy Council will do on 9 October 2013 is rubber stamp whatever decisions have already been made by Government Ministers.  The rejection or acceptance of the Cross Party and PressBoF Charters is a matter for them and them alone.


  1. Gill Phillips

    this picks up on the exchange I have been having with Brian Cathcart and Evan Harris on this topic. What is not clear is that the cross party charter has gone through even the two formal stages you mention. As far as I can see it has not been mentioned in the London Gazette. When did the government put the cross-Party petition to the PC? These are process points not substantive ones but it is vital that a proper process is followed. Particularly when Maria Miller in her Ministerial Statement on 4 July implied that the cross-party Charter needed some changes to be made to it, not least around application in Scotland and “technical and Legal” matters.


    The Cross-Party charter is not a charter incorporating members of a unique profession and is not subject to the “application process” set out on the website. The process is closer to say, the incorporation of a university or the original BBC charter: the Government decides, presents the Charter to the Privy Council which seals it. No one could be in any doubt about what Government policy as it was announced to and endorsed by Parliament on 18 March.

  3. Gill Phillips

    Doesn’t this analysis (“charter is not a charter incorporating members of a unique profession”) apply equally to the industry charter? I am surprised that you seem content to endorse what on the face of it seems to be the adoption by the Privy Council of such a non transparent and completely different process to the one it adopted for the industry charter! Maria Miller’s 4 July MInisterial Statement clealry supercedes the position as on 18 March. She says “Work has continued to prepare the charter published on 18 March for formal submission to the Privy Council.” She also says “I will be publishing an updated version of the cross-party charter in due course.”


    It does, indeed, apply equally to the industry charter. The Government’s decision to treat this as an ordinary “professional charter” application is difficult to understand. All that Maria Miller says is that the Cross Party Charter is being prepared for formal submission (that is, being put on the agenda for sealing) and that an updated version will be published (presumably before being put on the agenda).

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