For the past four years the Coalition parties have mounted an all-out assault on the justice system.
Prisons are in crisis. Full and overcrowded, with work, training and education on the decline. Suicides rose 69% last year. Violence against officers and other inmates has shot up since staff were cut last year, and barely a month goes by without a highly critical report from the Chief Inspector.
The privatisation of the probation service has been widely condemned by experts.
Coalition cuts to the legal aid budget were introduced without any idea of their effect, the National Audit Office reported recently. Last week the MoJ’s Permanent Secretary was forced to admit that ministerial pressure led the department to rush through legislation without commissioning research into how people would access the courts following the cuts.
But the Government’s current effort to hobble judicial review is in a class of its own, especially the role played by the Lib Dems who used to claim to be the party of civil liberties.
The proposals to restrict judicial review, in the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill, passed through the Commons on the strength of Coalition votes but were taken apart in the Lords. A Labour and Crossbench effort was joined by well-known Tory and Liberal Peers, including John Gummer, Geoffrey Howe and David Steel, inflicting three significant defeats on the Government. But last week Tory and Lib Dem MPs walked through the lobby together to overturn the Lords amendments.
An unprecedented alliance of charities, the legal professions, the judiciary and victims of government injustice have come together to defend JR. Former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf, a sponsor of the amendments which defeated the Government, said that the Bill undermined the independence of the judiciary and, thereby, the rule of law. Against statements like this the words of Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling that judicial review is a left-wing conspiracy seem juvenile. Yet there is no sign of a challenge from Clegg or his Lib Dem ministers.
Why it is that judicial review, a relatively recent development in administrative law, should so provoke this Lord Chancellor? JR is a remedy of last resort and includes a permission stage. Its accessibility has already been limited by restricting legal aid and shortening time limits for applying. Lord Justice Jackson in his review of civil costs took the view that it was already very difficult for the ordinary citizen to apply for judicial review for want of funds and expert knowledge, and that we should look at broadening the basis for bringing a claim.
The attack on judicial review should be of concern to us all. It is a remedy that can protect the rights of vulnerable individuals, such as young prisoners and dementia sufferers; that can save whole communities from wrongful decisions by the state, as when the closure of Lewisham’s accident and emergency department was ruled unlawful; and that can establish the law on important points of policy, often with the help of expert bodies that intervene to assist the court on a point of general principle.
It is, as Liberty says, ‘a crucial tool which allows ordinary people to challenge decisions by the authorities—either because they’re unlawful, irrational, or made in the wrong way’.
The Tory Party, with few exceptions, is now a prisoner of vested interests. But the descent of the Liberal Party from a champion of individual liberty to a cypher of the establishment is more shocking. Let us hope, as Peers vote again to reverse the Coalition attacks on JR, that their Lordships are imbued with older and more honorable values.
Andy Slaughter MP is the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister