Peace activist Maya Evans has won a dramatic High Court victory in her battle to block cuts to legal aid funding for human rights cases brought "in the public interest".
Two judges today ruled the decision to introduce the controversial changes in April last year "to save money" could not stand because of the "unlawful" influence exerted by former Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth on the decision-making process - unknown to Ms Evans.
Ms Evans recently fought a legally-aided action to stop Afghans captured by UK forces being sent to prisons where they allegedly faced torture.
But amendments to legal aid rules sought by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) threatened to prevent her and other activists bringing similar publicly-funded judicial review cases in the future.
The effect of the amendments was to block public funding in cases raising "public interest" issues if they were brought by claimants who did not stand to gain "direct benefit" for themselves or their families if the case was won.
An exception was made for cases said to promote "real benefit" to the environment.
Today Ms Evans persuaded the High Court in London to strike down the amendments.
Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Stadlen, said the then Defence Secretary Mr Ainsworth had suggested in 2008 "the time was right" to look at the legal aid rules.
The judge said Mr Ainsworth warned that adverse judgments in legal challenges being brought against the MoD arising from military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan could have "extremely serious" consequences for the UK's defence, security and foreign policy interests.
Those concerns, expressed in a letter written on November 29 2008, exerted some influence in promulgating the legal aid amendments approved by the Lord Chancellor, said the judge.
"In those circumstances a legally inadmissible consideration was taken into account, and the amendments must be quashed for that reason."
Lord Justice Laws declared: "For the State to inhibit litigation by the denial of legal aid because the court's judgment might be unwelcome or apparently damaging, would constitute an attempt to influence the incidence of judicial decisions in the interests of government.
"It would therefore frankly be inimical to the rule of law."
The judges also ruled the consultation process that led to the amendments was "legally defective" because opponents of the legal aid cuts were never told of the MoD's intervention and given a chance to respond.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We are currently considering the judgment, including whether or not to appeal."
Ms Evans welcomed the court's decision, saying: "In my previous case I had the opportunity to shine a light into the dark recesses of the UK's torture policy in Afghanistan, to the benefit of hundreds of prisoners and, ultimately, the British public.
"I am thrilled that similar opportunities are now preserved for future concerned citizens as a result of this victory."
The legal aid cuts were approved in amendments to the Legal Services Commission (LSC) funding code.
Today's ruling highlighted how Mr Ainsworth became concerned in cutting off public funding after Ms Evans was granted legal aid to challenge the MoD's policy for handing over prisoners arrested by British troops in Afghanistan to the Afghan National Directorate of Security.
Ms Evans questioned the legality of the policy because the Afghan security service was notorious for using torture.
The ex-Defence Secretary's 2008 letter said the decision to grant legal aid "leads me to wonder whether the time is right for a look at the rules under which (the Legal Services Commission) makes its decisions in judicial review cases..."
When Ms Evans's "torture" case came to court, judges partially allowed her application for judicial review and laid down guidelines to safeguard Afghan detainees against possible abuse in the future.
Today Lord Justice Laws said Mr Ainsworth seemed to be asserting "that the consequences of an adverse result in such a public interest judicial review is a good reason for the denial of public funding to bring the case".
The judge declared: "It needs no authority to conclude that by law such a position is not open to Government."
It was submitted on behalf of the Justice Secretary that the aim of the amendments was to save on the legal aid bill, said the judge.
But the MoD was the only government department to make representations on the proposed amendments, which would save the public purse no more than £50,000-£100,000.
Ms Evans's solicitor, Daniel Carey, of law firm Public Interest Lawyers, said: "These cuts to legal aid never were about saving money.
"They were about the Government's attempts to avoid accountability by cutting off litigation at its source. The court's outright rejection of this is a significant victory for the rule of law."
Phil Shiner, the head of Public Interest Lawyers, said: "A senior Court of Appeal judge has made clear that the MoD's behaviour in persuading the MoJ to change the rules secretly was an outrage to the rule of law.
"The courts will not tolerate such covert dishonesty and the MoD must now face the consequences of what it sanctioned in Iraq and Afghanistan."Reuse content