It all seemed rather innocent when the Prime Minister announced that he was going to make it more difficult for us to go to court to challenge planning decisions. After all, he suggested at the CBI conference, economic growth is being frustrated by time-wasting court challenges to planning permission decisions. Sweeping away or at least restricting the public's right to oppose building programmes can only be good in these difficult economic times.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. What Cameron proposes is a drastic reduction in the time after which any challenge by judicial review can be brought. The judicial review process has become “a massive growth industry” he complained. Now, he also intends to make it more expensive for us to go to court to hold government to account.
At present the Prime Minister’s target is planning decisions. But the means by which they can be challenged by an individual is via judicial review. Once undermined in one area, it will not be long before the Government’s sights are set upon the whole panoply of protections offered by judicial control of decisions of the state.
Judicial review currently covers a wide range of areas that cover the core of the citizen’s relationship with the state, including decisions made by the police, ministries of state including the MOD, the prison service, not to mention the NHS and virtually every other state body which impacts upon our lives.
Of course, the judiciary are unelected and as such, some argue that they have no mandate to challenge government. But electoral mandates are not of the currency they once were as we absorb the historically low turnout for the Police Commissioner elections last week and the fact that judges have not had to face the electorate is much overplayed.
In any event, and particularly in times of a weak opposition the only effective protection the public can get from shoddy state decision making is through the judges.
Judicial review was originally established many years ago to enable the citizen to keep the state in check, and one can well appreciate how frustrating it must be to governments who seem to think that they have the monopoly on good decisions over our wellbeing. Well they do not and sometimes they get it wrong.
Restricting access to judicial review in planning matters takes away another plank that the public have to challenge our “masters”. Once done the whole concept will be brought into question.
Be in no doubt, this has little to do with planning and has everything to do with access to justice.
John Cooper QC is a barrister specialising in human rights and criminal law