Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, has written to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, urging him and his party to vote with Labour MPs today and protect judicial review from “emasculation”.
It comes amid growing pressure from legal and other groups to support changes made to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in the House of Lords.
Mr Khan called on Liberal Democrats to “stand up for the constitutional significance of judicial review, and defend it from those intent on muzzling criticism”.
As the bill enters its ‘ping pong’ stage in Parliament this week – which reconciles the different versions passed by each house – he said: “It cannot be right that the government of the day should close down a key component of our democracy just because they dislike being criticised.”
Peers made three amendments to the bill’s judicial review clauses during its third reading in the Lords at the end of October. All three restored judicial discretion – the first two over the circumstances in which cases should be rejected, the third over the extent of interveners’ liability for costs.
Mr Khan said “a number of senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers” voted in favour of the amendments, including Baroness Williams and Lord Steel, along with cross-benchers and former law lords.
“The reason why we have staunchly opposed these changes is that they represent an unconstitutional attack on the rights of the British people to hold those in power to account,” the shadow justice secretary said.
“The government’s plans are an ideologically fuelled assault on mechanisms that expose illegal actions and right the wrongs of injustice, and if implemented would insulate the bad policy-making of future governments from challenge and place public authorities above the law.”
Mr Khan said that when the curbs on judicial review were considered in the wider context of cuts to legal aid, curtailing conditional fees, limiting access to employment tribunals and attacks on human rights legislation, the government had “stifled dissent and weakened people’s rights like no other in recent memory”.
He added that democracy was about upholding the rule of law, “in which judicial review is crucial”.
The Law Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives wrote to MPs last week in a final push to protect judicial review,
Meanwhile, a coalition of nearly 40 charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) today called on MPs to support the amendments passed by peers.
They said: “These proposals are not principally about the law or lawyers. They will affect decisions about the countryside, about schools, hospitals, our armed forces, police and security services; about housing, healthcare, education and transport. Ultimately these changes will affect how and whether Government will abide by the rules which Parliament sets.”
In a joint statement, the group – including Age UK, INQUEST, JUSTICE, Liberty, Mencap, Mind, the Howard League, the Child Poverty Action Group and Shelter – expressed concern that the effect of the original proposals would be to deter legitimate challenge, limit judges’ discretion to act in the public interest and shield public agencies from effective oversight.
The group also dismissed the sole government amendment to the Lords’ version, which would require the court to order costs against an intervener where their contribution “as a whole” had not been of “significant assistance” or they had acted unreasonably.
It said the wording of the amendment would actually make the risk of costs more significant, and said the uncertainty it promoted was likely to have a “devastating, chilling effect”.