When members of Maggie Thatcher’s Cabinet are telling you “whoa, that’s a bit right wing”, you might just want to rethink your plans for Judicial Review.
Of course, since Mr Christopher Greything usually responds to people who disagree with him by trying to abolish them, we might finally see some Lords Reform.
But the Coalition, particularly its Lib Dem ministers, are supposed to be a listening government. Let our Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians take this opportunity to say they have listened to the concerns of their Lordships and of our own membership and thought again and drop this dangerous bill.
I was ashamed – once again – at the long list of Liberal Democrat MPs voting to strike down the Lords’ amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. People ask me to justify that. I can’t.
Was there some deal? Was it part of an arrangement to get Liberal Democrat priorities like infrastructure investment, apprenticeships or anti-tax-evasion measures through the Autumn Statement? Whatever it was, the deal’s clearly off now that past-master of the political attack George Osborn has “declared war” on the Lib Dems, saying taxes would rise if we’re in government (clue: this is not a secret, Master Gideon).
Heroically, the Lords – for shame, the House of Lords! – have once again ridden to the rescue. To lose one vote in the Lords may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose one hundred smacks of absolute bloody-minded stupidity.
But there is no shame in listening. We’ve been here before with the Snoopers’ Charter. (And look to be here again with the Snooper’s Charter II, but that’s another gripe.) Take on board that there are serious and well-founded concerns with the Bill and accept the changes. It’s not in the Coalition agreement. If you can’t bring yourselves to vote against it after you’ve voted for it, all that is necessary is to say Liberal Democrats will abstain.
This isn’t about defending our traditions of justice. Magna Carta, did she die in vain etc etc. People who insist on calling Judicial Review a “foundation stone” of our democracy are both overstating and undervaluing its position. Far from defending our traditional systems this is about enshrining necessary new ones. Our system is woefully short of checks and balances and far from being an ancient right, long taken for granted, this is a much-needed modern addition to our unwritten constitution, and not one to be tossed aside.
You might like to trace it back to the King’s Writ, but that’s a fig-leaf for a legal system that places much store on precedent. Really it is a judge-made development, taking off in the Nineteen Eighties, when somebody had to stand up to a government that was unrestrained by Parliament by dint of a huge majority, with much of its force added by way of the Human Rights Act, granting the courts the power, indeed the duty, to oversee the government’s compliance with our basic human rights.
In fact it’s not really compatible with Parliamentary Sovereignty – which is why Parliament keeps writing new and sillier laws to grant itself permission to ignore one judgment or another – but incorporating independent third-party review of legislation is a vital step towards properly holding the executive and legislature to account.
But that’s not the point.
And it’s not about humiliating the Secretary of State, Mr Christopher Greything, a Tory too dull to be described as a Sinister Minister of Justice, but who just won’t be told when he’s in the wrong.
It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for a Department of Justice facing the austerity squeeze, that’s already cut legal aid to the bone. The numbers of Judicial Review cases have tripled since 2000; they’re very expensive; and, given the large percentage that the government wins, you can see how someone might think they are often vexatious or at least time-wasting.
There’s certainly a case for arguing that justice is already far too expensive: the courts are a rich man’s playground (and I do generally mean “man”), because taking any kind of action is prohibitively expensive for anyone without thousands – if not millions, just ask former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell – to toss around. Most people cannot even think of going to court unless forced to by the most horrible of circumstances. Changing it from unthinkably expensive to impossibly expensive is surely address the problem in dramatically the wrong direction, though.
But that’s not the point either.
We came into the Coalition with a huge mandate for reform of Civil Liberties after years of Hard Labour eroding them. Detention without trial. Fingerprinting children. Almost the first thing we did, even before that Rose Garden Press Conference was nuke the idea of I.D. Cards.
Since then it’s been one rear-guard action after another, usually against Tin-Pot Theresa of the Home Office.
But Civil Liberties are not just some abstract legal discussion. Today’s revelations about the CIA only underline that unchecked power leads directly to abuse, and even torture.
So, the point is this:
Access to justice, standing up for the citizen against the bullies, protection against “The Man”: these are the things that my Party is supposed to be for!