I followed with great interest an exchange on Twitter the other day between Marilyn Stowe and various others regarding alleged government attempts to destroy the judicial system.
The catalyst for the discussion was, I believe, an article last Friday in The Telegraph which suggested that our Supreme Court justices have become too powerful and should be reined in. Marilyn forcefully argued that this was not the case and that the Supreme Court is actually a check against a much too powerful government with no effective opposition. The Supreme Court has dared to speak out against a government that is destroying the judicial system, removing legal aid and denying proper access to law for millions.
As Marilyn pointed out our system, as in any democracy, is all about checks and balances on power. It is vital therefore that we continually scrutinise those who wield power for any attempts to remove those checks and tilt the balance in their favour. Unfortunately, a look at the record of the present government and its predecessor paints a rather disturbing picture.
The signs were not good when a non-lawyer, Chris Grayling, was appointed Lord Chancellor in 2012, the first non-lawyer to be given the post in over 400 years. Now, there is no rule that says that the Lord Chancellor must be a lawyer, but I think it is unarguable that some knowledge of the legal system would be a useful prerequisite for such a position.
Unfortunately, Mr Grayling proceeded to show an utter contempt for the system, the lawyers who work in it and those who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves caught up within it. Using the pretext of economic necessity (but only saving a piffling sum, which would do virtually nothing to reduce the national debt), he destroyed our legal aid system, which had for sixty years provided all citizens of this country with their birth right, equal access to justice. In the process, of course, he attacked the legal professionals who, often for poor reward, provided the legal aid service, an attack that continues to this day.
One of the government’s primary targets of course has been human rights, that upstart that has dared to directly challenge what the government has been trying to do. Ignoring the minor detail that the UK government very rarely loses cases brought against it in the European Court of Human Rights (only about one in a hundred), human rights have been subjected to a sustained attack by the government and those that back it, in particular within the media. It suggests to me that this government is not prepared to countenance any challenge to its rule, no matter how small that challenge may be in reality.
Then there is the issue of judicial review. For those who don’t know, judicial review is the procedure under which a court can review the lawfulness of decisions or actions taken by public bodies. It is used to protect the rights of the citizen against the abuse of power by public bodies. Naturally, any paranoid government is likely to be suspicious of such a procedure. And so it has turned out to be the case with this government. Despite the fact that research has shown that the procedure is not subject to widespread abuse, as some would have us think, the government pressed ahead with policies aimed at severely restricting access to judicial review.
And now we see government-supporting media attacking the Supreme Court (once again using human rights as a pretext). As I said above, it all paints a disturbing picture of a government intent upon silencing its enemies, irrespective of who they may be. The rule of law dictates that no one should be above the law, but this government seems to want to put itself in that dangerous position.