The government wants to use its criminal justice and courts bill to make it more difficult for campaigners – including disabled people’s groups – to test the legality of controversial public sector policies.
Peers had amended the government’s plans, altering the bill so that judges would still have discretion to allow judicial reviews for so-called “minor technicalities” to go ahead, but MPs threw out the amendments made in the Lords.
The Conservative justice minister Lord Faulks told fellow peers, as they debated changes to the bill introduced in the Lords but rejected by MPs: “When used appropriately, judicial review is an essential part of the rule of law, by allowing for the lawfulness of public bodies’ actions to be tested in court.
“But it is an area that has been misused, with claims brought with no real prospect of success, and with a view to delaying and adding expense to perfectly lawful acts that are simply disliked.”
But Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who has fought the plans throughout the bill’s progress, told fellow peers that she remained “deeply troubled” by the government’s changes, which would remove judges’ discretion.
She said: “I know only too well how much vulnerable people, especially those who are disabled, rely on state services and how catastrophic it is when things go horribly wrong.
“I feel that in the other place [Chris Grayling, the Conservative justice secretary] is still peddling the line that judicial review has been hijacked by pressure groups for political campaigning…
“If political campaigning includes campaigning for justice and people’s access to justice, then I am very happy to plead guilty; I am one of those campaigners.”
She said that judicial reviews were even more important in “tough times”, to “ensure that the government do not ride roughshod over their citizens”.
She said that coalition cuts to legal aid were already hindering access to justice “for those at the margins of society, especially disabled people” and that the government’s plans for judicial reviews were “about weakening the ability of ordinary vulnerable people to hold public bodies to account, and increasing the power of the state”.
Baroness Campbell said: “The government want to exclude judicial review for what they call ‘minor technicalities’ – for example, the need for a bit more consultation.
“So much for due process. Removing judges’ current discretion would allow unlawful or dishonest decisions to go unchecked and public bodies to be let off the hook.”
She urged fellow peers to “think about the hundreds of very vulnerable people who will need this over the coming years as, I have to tell the House, things are getting really tough for us”.
The amendment – backed by a number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers – was passed by 274 to 205 votes. It will now return to the Commons for further debate, along with two other amendments to the bill.
11 December 2014