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Parkinsons’ Law of Delay

By: Mark Tottenham BL

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Originally published in 1957, Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress is most famous for the maxim in its opening line: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’

In the work, C Northcote Parkinson addresses a number of other issues arising in administration, including the ‘law of triviality’. This explains why a committee might spend less time discussing an issue of some importance, such as whether to proceed with commissioning a nuclear reactor for £10 million, as discussing an issue of rather less importance, such as whether to build a staff bicycle shed for £350, or how much to spend on refreshments at meetings. Where most of the decision-making body might struggle to understand the technicalities of the nuclear reactor, everybody can understand - and express a firm opinion on - issues such as bicycle sheds and coffee.

Written tongue-in-cheek, and illustrated by Osbert Lancaster, Parkinson’s Law might be thought essential reading for anybody studying or working in public administration. Sadly, it is out of print - although second hand copies are readily available online.

Interest may be revived, however, by the fact that the High Court of Ireland recently gave its imprimatur to ‘Parkinson’s Law of Delay’ in the case of Carter v. Minister for Education [2018] IEHC 539 (High Court, Humphreys J, 3 October 2018).

In the case, a Leaving Certificate candidate found that, due to a calculating error, she had received a lower mark than she should have in one of her subjects. She therefore missed the points for veterinary science, her chosen course, when she would have achieved the points if the marks had been added correctly. The cut-off date for entering the course for the academic year was 30 September 2018, under the rules of the university in question (although the course had started earlier in the month). But, under the appeals process of the State Examinations Commission (SEC), she would not get a decision until 10 October, which would be too late.

As pointed out by Mr Justice Humphreys, this was a classic response of what C Northcote Parkinson described as the ‘Prohibitive Procrastinator’ (PP):

Instead of saying ‘No’, the PP says ‘In due course’ … The theory of N[egation by] D[elay] depends upon establishing a rough idea of what amount of delay will equal negation. If we suppose that a drowning man calls for help, evoking the reply ‘In due course,’ a judicious pause of five minutes may constitute, for all practical purposes, a negative response.

In Carter, the applicant obtained leave to seek judicial review on 7 September. The action was heard on 25 and 26 September, and the High Court granted an order that the appeal be determined by the SEC by 28 September. As the appeal was determined in the applicant’s favour, she was in a position to commence the course by the cut-off-date, but having missed the initial weeks.

As concluded by the court:

An appeal system that does not enable applicants to take up their courses until potentially one-and-a-half months after the start of the academic year – the period between the start of the academic year on or about 3rd September and the close of the offer season on 17th October – is, as I said when announcing the order, manifestly not fit for purpose.

Citing Professor Parkinson, the court commented that the law of delay could be circumvented, even if it could not be amended or repealed. It could be said that such circumvention is the one of the purposes of judicial review, where administrative decisions lead to injustice.

First Published in Law Ireland in November 2018

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