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most of the judicial and political functions it exercised since the middle of the seventeenth century and has largely been replaced by the Cabinet.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.
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).
The Scottish Privy Council dated from the late 15th cent. After the union of the crowns in 1603, though the crucial decisions were taken in London, the Scottish Privy Council had considerable influence as the day-to-day executive. It was abolished immediately after the Act of Union of 1707.
J. A. Cannon
PRIVY COUNCIL was a body of advisers who provided policy advice to the British sovereign. The council contained the ministers of state who held leading administrative positions for the British Empire. The Crown performed all official business concerning Anglo-America at the Privy Council meetings. The council heard appeals from colonial courts, had veto power over colonial legislation, advised the monarch on the appointment of royal governors, and recommended the issuance of proclamations. Committees within the Privy Council for the over-sight of the colonies were the Board of Trade and Plantations, the Council for Foreign Plantations, the Colonial Board, and the Committee for Trade and Plantations.
Turner, Edward Raymond. The Privy Council of England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, 1603–1784. 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1927–1928.
The Privy Council together with the monarch constitutes "the Crown," which is, in theory, the executive branch of the British government. Association of the council in the exercise of executive power was a check against the abuse of that power. The council is appointed for life and comprises members of the royal family, ministers and former ministers of state, judges, and distinguished subjects. In practice, the cabinet has become, through an evolutionary process, the executive committee of the Privy Council.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Privy Council exercised the royal prerogative of disallowing acts of the colonial legislatures. At the same time the council was the highest court of appeal from the colonial courts (a function now exercised by the judicial committee of the Privy Council). The role of the Privy Council in the political order of the British Empire was thus suggestive of both the veto power and judicial review.
Some of the early state constitutions provided for a council to share the executive power or to review acts of the legislature. At the constitutional convention of 1787 various unsuccessful proposals for a plural executive reflected the British notion of the Privy Council as a check against royal tyranny.
Dennis J. Mahoney