The coalition government is guilty of many crimes since its creation in 2010. But by steamrollering through changes to judicial review, they are seeking to insulate themselves from challenge, and restrict the ability of the British people to hold to account future governments that break the law.
Ministers are often defendants to applications for judicial review, precisely why they do not like it. But such applications are not brought lightly, and, crucially, have to pass an initial test of securing the court’s permission to proceed to a hearing. Very often the mere lodging of an application will produce a rethink by the decision making body leading to the correction of any flaw in the process. Equally, other interested parties can seek the court’s permission to intervene in the case to offer expert opinion in support of one or other of the parties. Many cases are resolved without a full hearing.
But this isn’t good enough for the present government, now engaged in seeking to reverse the substantial defeats it sustained in three votes in the House of Lords on amendments which sought to preserve judicial discretion in determining applications on a range of issues.
The fettering of judicial discretion has been a recurring feature of the government’s numerous attempts to reshape our justice system, a curious way of building up to the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta next year. It proved unacceptable to peers across the chamber, pitifully few of whom spoke in support of the government.
The proposals have attracted trenchant criticism from, among other eminent lawyers, the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Characteristically, the Lord Chancellor is determined to reverse the decision of the Lords, albeit with some minor unsatisfactory changes in relation to interveners.
The House of Lords is traditionally, and reasonably, reluctant to challenge the elected chamber, but where the rights of the citizen are concerned, and where the government can be seen to legislate to immunise itself against legal challenge, there is an overwhelming case for it to do so.
Given the political arithmetic of the second chamber, much will depend on the Liberal Democrats, who have long, and with some justification, proclaimed themselves to be supporters of civil liberties and accountable government. Several spoke and voted in favour of the amendments passed by the Lords.
It falls to them and their colleagues in the House of Commons to redeem their party’s reputation by joining crossbench and Labour peers, and hopefully some Conservatives, in rejecting the government’s amendments to the Bill, which, for the record was never part of the coalition agreement.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP and Labour justice spokesperson in the Lords Jeremy Beecham