10th August 2020
What should we make of the government’s announcement of “independent panel to look at judicial review”?
By way of background: judicial review is the general name for how the courts in England and Wales consider the lawfulness of government decision-making and rule-making.
If a government decision or rule has not been made within the legal powers available, or has otherwise been made improperly, the High Court in London can quash that decision or rule.
Governments do not like being told ‘no’ by courts.
The announcement and the Terms of Reference
The announcement is a small item on the government website, which in turn links to a one-and-a-half page pdf with the grand title of Terms of Reference for the Independent Review Of Administrative Law.
This title and the Notes helpfully take up the majority of the one-and-a-half pages.
The substance of the Terms of Reference (such as it is) is in four numbered paragraphs, and these four paragraphs have been put in bold – perhaps to make them look more impressive.
A first thought about this review is that you would think that the Ministry of Justice would have more important things to do.
The ongoing coronavirus emergency means the criminal justice system is beset by backlogs and delays, and the prison system is more dangerous than ever.
But at this time senior ministers and officials at the Ministry of Justice wish to devote their scarce managerial time and resources to this matter.
Lack of substance
A second thought is that the announcement and the Terms of Reference are, well, rather flimsy.
The four numbered paragraphs, even when supplemented by the Notes and said in that slow ‘voiceover man’ way as all passages in bold should be, are as general as the author(s) of the document could get away with, short of saying nothing of substance at all.
Even paragraph 4, which is perhaps the most important, is no more than a brief list of discussion points.
The document has an improvised and rushed air to it – the Notes in particular seem to be a late attempt to add some substance.
All this said, there is stuff here which is – or may become – concerning.
Paragraph one – codification
The first paragraph is, as a lawyer would say in court, an old chestnut: should judicial review be placed on a statutory footing?
This is an examination essay question of the ages.
And there is no quick or neat way this review, or anyone else, can place judicial review on an entirely statutory basis even if it wanted to do so.
This is not to say there are not already detailed statutory rules.
Judicial review is already heavily regulated by legislation: by the Senior Courts Act and by the (statutory) Civil Procedure Rules.
But the ultimate basis of judicial review is not contained within any Act of Parliament, as it derives from the very jurisdiction of the court itself – and some would say that the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court is logically prior to, and distinct from, the legislative supremacy of parliament.
To somehow convert this source of law into a statute would no doubt require complex and sophisticated legislation, if it can be done at all – and, unless there is a particular reason to do so, there seems not a lot of point in doing so.
And, there is the ‘hole-in-my-bucket’ problem of how the courts would police compliance with any such new constitutional statute if its power is entirely to be derived from that statute.
Some things are perhaps better left as student essay questions.
Paragraphs 2 and 3 – justiciability
Paragraphs 2 and 3 are impressive in that somebody has somehow managed to make two paragraphs out of one point.
That point is justiciability.
This is about what sort of issues are questions for the court as opposed to, say, Parliament, the government, or the electorate.
The problem here, as with paragraph 1, is circularity.
A question for the court is always a legal one – whether an action (or inaction) is legal or not.
And what sort of issues are legal ones?
The ones that are decided by a court.
If there is to be some statutory definition of what questions are justiciable, then all that may happen is that the legal battleground shifts to litigation about whether that new definition applies.
Courts, contrary to media representations, are already reluctant to the point of unwilling to decide political questions: for example, all the Miller litigation did was ensure that parliament decided certain issues rather than the executive.
Those who sought to use the courts to stop Brexit not only failed but did not even come close to getting any judicial reversal of that political decision.
What we do often get is media and political misinformation about what the courts are doing and not doing.
And the cure for such misinformation about the law is not to change the law.
Paragraph 4 – collateral attacks
Paragraph 4 is where this Review may make some difference.
The ultimate basis of judicial review cannot be easily changed, and nor can the need for a court to decide whether a question is a legal one or not.
But – like a participant in ‘Wacky Races’ throwing devices out a car window to snare the car behind – the government can promote rules and procedures that can make access to the courts more difficult.
Here, however, the government probably does not need an independent review to do this: this has pretty much been government policy since the Blair years, with the worst most recent attack on the easy availability of judicial review coming under the Coalition government (and promoted by a Liberal Democrat minister).
You will see unlike paragraphs 2 and 3, where one point is stretched into two, that paragraph 4 has six points – each one of which is a potential pressure point for limiting the flow of justice, just like the body has pressure points to limit the supply of blood or oxygen.
What the government here is seeking to do is reform the practice of judicial review so that it almost impossible to obtain it as a practical remedy.
Towards a report and beyond
This review has the whiff of ‘something must be done’ – the government and its advisors do not like judges saying ‘no’ and so something must be done to stop the judges saying ‘no’.
One way judges would be prevented from quashing decisions and rules is for those decisions and rules to made better in the first place.
Any decision or rule in respect of public policy can probably be made by the government through parliament, as long as government and parliament make the decision or rule properly.
The courts can only intervene when there is illegality.
The problem in this age of Brexit and coronavirus is that the government does not want to go through the proper law-making process – it wants to use wide powers, either in emergency or Brexit legislation – and to not have any parliamentary or other check on that power.
This is the executive power project.
Perhaps this review is a clever wheeze by some wise official to delay or deflect the attack on judicial review – by the time the panel reports, things may have ‘moved on’.
But this is probably wishful thinking.
The impulse of some now in and around government for executive power for its own sake will still be there.
And they will not rest until they have done as much as they can to remove any constitutional check or balance to their wish to have, in effect, government by decree.
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