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17 June 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 9:49am

The PM lauds Magna Carta but his government undermines its greatest legacies

Paying lip service to Magna Carta is all we can expect from a government that has done more to undermine the rule of law and the operation of the legal system than any in modern times.

By Andy Slaughter

Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s recent praise for Magna Carta but as always with David Cameron, the proof is in the pudding. His actions as Prime Minister expose his words as the sentiments and platitudes that they really are.

Paying lip service to the principles of Magna Carta is all we can expect from a coalition government that has, in the person of its Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, done more to undermine the rule of law and the operation of the legal system than any in modern times.

His failure to manage the brief is near total. He has presided over the dismantling of civil and now criminal legal aid, the privatisation of the probation service, chaos in the courtrooms, an overcrowding crisis in our prisons, expansion of secret courts, attacks on human rights and restrictions on access to justice for victims and those of limited means.

And what next?

The Criminal Justice & Courts Bill represents the coup de grace. A frontal assault on the key legal remedy of judicial review. The cumulative effect of the proposals in this Bill – alongside new fees, cuts in Legal Aid and shorter time limits – is to hobble the principle method by which the administrative court can prevent unlawful conduct by the state in the way it – in all its manifestations – makes decisions.

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One of the 17 experts who gave evidence to the Bill Committee memorably described the government’s proposals for judicial review as a constitutional provocation. 16 of the 17 opposed them outright. The 17th, the head of planning for Taylor Wimpey UK, did support them, but slightly undermined his case by confessing “I have only had sight of the Bill…and I am attending at late notice“.

It is not surprising that the secretary of state could find no one qualified to support his position, which is based as usual on his gut instinct, that judicial review is being used to defeat government policy for political reasons. He elaborated on his belief that judicial review is “a promotional tool for countless left-wing campaigners” in a widely-panned op-ed for the Daily Mail.

Again with Grayling the evidence just is not there to support his gut. Judicial review is essential for holding the executive to account when they get it wrong or even worse. For example when the High Court and Appeal Court ruled against the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt when he tried to close Lewisham Hospital A&E, it was judicial review that revealed he had acted unlawfully. Speaking afterwards, Rosa Curling, who represented the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign group in their case said that, “the decision to dismiss the appeal also reaffirms the need for judicial review, a legal process by which the unlawful decisions of public bodies, including the government, can be challenged by the public.” 

This is why it is so important we completely oppose any attempt to water down and restrict judicial review. We need to see it preserved as an essential check on executive power. 

Under these changes, the true purpose of judicial review, to hold the state to account, may be severely weakened if not lost.  This is an extraordinary position for a Lord Chancellor to take. Chris Grayling is the first non-lawyer to hold the post of Lord Chancellor in over 300 years, but he needs to brush up his British constitutional history. 

Now that the Education Secretary Michael Gove has stopped the circulation of the Prime Minister’s copies of Magna Carta to schools, there must be a lot lying around in Downing Street.

Next time the Lord Chancellor is there he should read a copy. He will find the memorable words: ‘we will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right’.

Upholding the rule of law, allowing the citizen to challenge the state and other powerful interests, is at the heart of our constitution. Judicial review became in the twentieth century a powerful tool for effecting those rights. It is this that the government now seeks to fetter. David Cameron lauds Magna Carta but it is his government that is undermining its greatest legacies.

Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith and a shadow justice minister

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