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Following the Prime Minister’s declaration of “war” on judicial review last month, the Ministry of Justice has now published a consultation paper in which it sets out, and invites comments on, specific proposals concerning the judicial review process. They include reducing the time limit for seeking judicial review in certain circumstances. In planning cases, the limit would come down to six weeks, and in procurement cases to 30 days. The Government also proposes to reduce the scope for renewing applications for permission to seek judicial review following an initial refusal. In particular, such renewal applications would not be permitted by way of an oral hearing in cases where “substantially the same matter” had already been the subject of a hearing before a judge or where, on the papers, a judge had ruled the claim to be “totally without merit”. Court fees would also go up. Applying for judicial review would cost £235 instead of £60 (as at present), and a new fee (of £215-£235) would apply to oral renewals.
These ostensibly dry proposals do not appear to amount to a “war” on judicial review, not least because there is no attempt to immunize any categories of Government decisions against all judicial scrutiny. But this does not mean that the proposals are trivial. Shorter time limits will undoubtedly make it harder for some challenges to be made, given the time needed to put together some applications. Meanwhile, reducing the scope for challenging initial refusals of permission to seek judicial review arguably assumes that the initial stage is more robust than it actually is. In fact, empirical research by Bondy and Sunkin shows that it is something of a lottery, with significant variation between individual judges’ inclination to grant permission. And while, in the general scheme of things, £235 may not be a huge amount of money (given the other costs often associated with litigation), there is something rather troubling about increasing court fees in order to make access to the courts more difficult – which is arguably the purpose here.
These aspects of the proposals are considered in more detail by Adam Wagner in a thoughtful piece published on the UK Human Rights Blog. In this post, however, I wish to focus more on the “mood music” associated with the MoJ’s consultation, and will suggest that it inadequately reflects – indeed, distorts – the constitutional significance and role of judicial review.
Part of the Government’s case for making judicial review more difficult is that, compared with a few years ago, far more claimants are now seeking to bring judicial review applications: a phenomenon which, the argument goes, has undesirable implications both for judicial resources and public administration. Much is therefore made of the fact that only a small proportion of applications for permission to seek judicial review are granted; that fewer than half of cases that proceed to a substantive hearing are decided in favour of claimants; and that even those claimants who are successful may win only “pyrrhic victories” – all of which supposedly demonstrates that the judicial review process is, for the most part, an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the business of governing.
This argument can be contested in a variety of ways, but here I concentrate on one particular aspect of it – namely, the dismissal of some (perhaps many) successful judicial review claims as merely pyrrhic victories, “with the matter referred back to the decision-making body for further consideration in light of the Court’s judgment”. Given the context (described above) of this claim in the consultation paper, its import is presumably that pyrrhic victories are pointless ones, because the decision-maker might ultimately make the same decision again. But to make such an argument is to miss the point in spectacular fashion.
It is undeniably the case that success on a number – but by no means all – of the judicial review grounds will result in the matter being referred back to the decision-maker in the way described in the consultation paper. But such victories are far from unimportant. Viewed in instrumental terms, it is impossible to know in advance whether any given judicial review victory will be pyrrhic – in the sense of failing to prevent the unwanted substantive decision from being retaken – or not. If, for instance, a court rules that the decision was flawed because a legally irrelevant consideration was taken into account or an improper purpose pursued, the new decision – taken only on the basis of relevant considerations and for statutorily authorized purposes – may or may not differ.
But even this instrumental analysis misses the point – or at least fails to capture the whole of it. For judicial review is about far more than merely helping some claimants to get the decision they want. In normative terms, it discharges a constitutionally imperative function by enabling the Government to be held to rule-of-law based standards of good administration and due process. Viewed in this way, there is no such thing as a pyrrhic judicial review victory: every victory – whatever the eventual outcome for the individual – is a victory for the rule of law.
The “negative effect” of judicial review on decision-makers
The consultation paper contains a second, equally surprising assertion. According to paragraph 35:
“It is not just the immediate impact of Judicial Review that is a concern. We also believe that the threat of Judicial Review has an unduly negative effect on decision makers. There is some concern that the fear of Judicial Review is leading public authorities to be overly cautious in the way they make decisions, making them too concerned about minimising, or eliminating, the risk of a legal challenge.”
As well as noting the highly impressionistic nature of this assertion – should not Government policy be based upon more than “belief” and unsubstantiated “concern”? – three specific points may be made in response to it.
First, the argument, even if taken at face value and assessed on its own terms, is lamentably weak. It reduces to the contention that public authorities should be shielded from judicial review to a greater extent than they are at present because of their tendency – if exposed to judicial review – to do things that the law does not actually require of them. The solution to this problem – if it exists – is so obvious as not to require elaboration.
Second, it could just as easily – and, arguably, more convincingly – be contended that the threat – or, putting the matter less pejoratively, possibility – of judicial review may have a positive effect on decision-makers. This point can be made in relation to specific individual cases, an obvious and notable recent example being supplied by the collapse of the Government’s decision to award the West Coast rail franchise to First Group. It is clear that that decision – which had been robustly defended by Ministers – may well have stood had judicial review not been in prospect.
Third, the foregoing argument can be applied in a broader sense. Not only may the prospect of judicial review impact upon particular decisions; it may also influence the approach to decision-making within Government more generally. Looked at in this way, the principles of good administration enforced via judicial review constitute a template of best practice – and one that is taken seriously thanks to its legal enforceability. This is reflected, for instance, in the former Cabinet Secretary’s foreword to the 2006 edition of The Judge Over Your Shoulder, who commended it “as a key source of guidance for improving policy development and decision-making in the public service”. This point cannot be pressed too far. It is, for instance, well-known that public authorities are not particularly good at internalizing judicial decisions within their front-line decision-making processes; but this is hardly a reason for attempting to shield public bodies from judicial review.
Judicial review as an unwelcome irritant
In one sense, the consultation paper says the “right” things about judicial review. It is, for instance, acknowledged to be a “critical check on the power of the State”; and the intention behind the reforms “is not to deny, or restrict, access to justice, but to provide for a more balanced and proportionate approach”. (“Proportionate to what exactly?” one wonders.) But underlying the consultation paper is a mindset that postulates judicial review proceedings as an unwelcome irritant. For instance, it is said (without the provision of any examples) that:
“[They] create delays and add to the costs of public services, in some cases stifling innovation and frustrating much needed reforms, including those aimed at stimulating growth and promoting economic recovery.”
Similarly, in his media statement accompanying the publication of the consultation paper, Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, said:
“We have seen a huge surge in Judicial Review cases in recent years. The system is becoming mired in large numbers of applications, many of which are weak or ill-founded, and they are taking up large amounts of judicial time, costing the court system money and can be hugely frustrating for the bodies involved in them.”
This reflects sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister in his speech to the CBI in November. Judicial review, like other trappings of the administrative state such as consultations, audits and compliance with EU procurement rules, was cited as a factor that makes the Government “far too slow at getting stuff done”. Being distracted by such matters was not what had made the UK “one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth”. And so part of the solution, said Cameron, was to cut back on judicial reviews, “many of which are completely pointless”, thereby “getting a grip” on this “massive growth industry”.
Whatever lip service is paid to the constitutional importance of judicial review in the consultation paper, the mood music is pretty clear. Judicial review is not a Good Thing. Of course, it is hardly surprising that politicians are not fond of judicial review, given that they are among those on the receiving end of such proceedings (not, of course, that this should really bother them that much if many cases are “completely pointless” and victories merely “pyrrhic”). In that sense, the fact that the Government has brought forward these proposals against the backdrop of antagonism towards the courts’ judicial review powers has a certain “Dog Bites Man” quality to it.
Judicial review in its broader constitutional setting
But this surface observation masks a deeper point about the nature of the constitution and judicial review’s place within it. If Parliament is sovereign, then there is clearly no legal inhibition upon its clipping the courts’ wings – whether in the relatively modest ways proposed in the consultation paper, or more profoundly via (for instance) the use of statutory ouster provisions. And there is equally nothing that legally prevents the Executive – its obvious vested interest notwithstanding – from pressing Parliament to enact such legislation. On this view, then, judicial review is fair game, and there is nothing improper – at least in a legal sense – if the political branches modify or curb the High Court’s supervisory jurisdiction.
However, as I have argued elsewhere, the UK’s unusual – including unwritten – constitutional arrangements are defensible and sustainable only for as long as the three branches of Government exhibit appropriate respect towards one another. This requires, among other things, that Parliament and the Executive acknowledge and accept that a key part of the courts’ constitutional role involves securing Government according to law. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that for at least some senior judges – consider, for instance, the by now well-known dicta in Jackson – the absence of such respect for the courts might trigger a wider breakdown in institutional comity.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what would happen were such circumstances to eventuate, precisely because the unwritten constitution is animated and sustained by a fundamental uncertainty, or mystery, about the relationship between different loci of power. It would, for instance, be going too far baldly to argue that judicial review is a constitutional fundamental such that Parliament is not sovereign – just as it would be going too far to assume blithely that the courts’ powers of judicial review are as constitutionally precarious as an orthodox application of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty would suggest. What can, however, be said with relative confidence is that acceptance by the political branches of the courts’ judicial review powers is a crucial component of the implicit institutional comity upon which the British constitution – in the absence of an explicit, formalized constitutional settlement – depends.
The Ministry of Justice’s proposals fall well short of a full-frontal attack upon judicial review, and as such they do not fundamentally threaten that comity. But they reflect both an underlying antagonism towards judicial review and an assumption that the courts’ powers in this area exist only on the terms and to the extent that the other branches are prepared to tolerate them. That assumption is a misplaced one, which exhibits inadequate sensitivity to the delicate, if unarticulated, nature of the UK’s constitutional settlement.
Mark Elliott is Reader in Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge.
Suggested citation: M. Elliott, ‘Judicial review – why the Ministry of Justice doesn’t get it’ UK Const. L. Blog (16th December 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org