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The Privy Council

The Privy Council developed from a small group of royal advisers at court into the chief source of executive authority. But its powerful position was weakened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more of its functions were transferred to a developing parliamentary Cabinet. Its work was later devolved to newly created ministries, which were needed to cope with a rapidly changing society.

Today its main role is to advise the monarch on a range of matters, like the resolution of constitutional issues and the approval of Orders in Council, such as the granting of Royal Charters to public bodies. Its members can be appointed to advisory and problem-solving committees and, because of its international membership and continuing constitutional character, it can be influential.

Cabinet ministers automatically become memberson taking government office. Life membership of the council is also given by the monarch, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, to eminent people in Britain and in independent monarchical countries of the Commonwealth. There are about 380 Privy Councillors at present, but the organization tends to work for practical purposes mostly through small groups. A full council is usually only summoned on the death of a monarch; when there are serious constitutional issues at stake; or occasionally when a Commonwealth Heads of State Conference is held in London. In the case of any indisposition of the monarch, counsellors of state or an appointed regent would work partly through the Privy Council.

Apart from its practical duties and its role as a constitutional forum for experienced people, perhaps the most important task of the Privy Council today is performed by its Judicial Committee. This serves as the final court of appeal from those dependencies and Commonwealth countries which have retained this avenue of appeal. It may also be used as an arbiter for a wide range of courts and committees in Britain and overseas, and its rulings can be influential.

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