Boris Johnson undermining courts to consolidate power, retired Supreme Court judge warns

Constitutional experts warn government wants to ‘do down’ courts and is undermining trust in the constitution

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 06 October 2020 14:49 BST
More bluster from Boris, this time on wind energy
More bluster from Boris, this time on wind energy (AP)

A former Supreme Court judge has accused Boris Johnson of trying to undermine the courts and legal system in a bid to solidify government power and push through his programme.

Lord Sumption, who retired from the court in 2018, told at parliamentary select committee that the government was intent on "doing down the courts as potential sources of impediments for the government's programme".

The former top judge was joined in criticism by other senior constitutional experts, who sounded the alarm about the "worrying trend" of disrespect for the rule of law emanating from Downing Street.

The Conservative government has been widely criticised for its actions and rhetoric around rule of law, with Supreme Court judges branded "enemies of the people" by the government's media outriders at the Daily Mail in 2016.

Since then, the government has unilaterally suspended parliament to try and force through its programme, and actively chosen to defy international law over the Brexit deal Boris Johnson signed at the start of 2020.

Just this week the Home Secretary Priti Patel used her Tory conference speech to mount another attack on the legal profession - accusing "lefty lawyers" of trying "to play and profit from the broken system".

The 2019 Conservative manifesto said the government would try to restore trust in politics with a commission looking at the constitution, but none has so far been set up.

Professor Meg Russell, director of the UCL Constitution Unit, told MPs that it was in fact the government that was undermining trust in the constitution and the institutions of the British state.

"If the government really is interested in restoring trust then it ought to change the way it behaves and the way that it talks," she told parliament's public administration and constitutional affairs select committee.

"I don't think you should expect to have a situation where senior ministers are rubbishing the role of parliament, rubbishing the role of courts where there are briefings, from unnamed sources often in Downing Street rubbishing the civil service, rubbishing regulators, and then to set up a commission that is somehow going to restore trust.

"The government has a responsibility for maintaining trust and there's been a great deal of noises coming out of this government that are driving things in the opposition direction to that."

The UK Supreme Court has ruled against the government before

She added: "I think there is a very worrying trend, it's been going on for a long time but it's accelerated recently - particularly the rows over Brexit helped it to accelerate – whereby politicians and indeed people in the media see this data showing trust in institutions is low and see there are electoral advantages, or maybe in the case of the media commercial advantages in joining a chorus of voices which is saying parliament is rubbish, the courts are sticking their noses in, politics is broken.

"Even the Conservative manifesto included words about parliament suggesting that MPs have been acting undemocratically. Personally I thought that was pretty disgraceful.

"It is the role of senior politicians and of political parties to maintain trust in our institutions and indeed try and improve understanding of the way our institutions work and if senior political figures are rubbishing our political institutions i don't see how they can expect trust to be restored. "

Speaking at the same committee, Lord Lisvane, a cross bench peer who served as clerk of the House of Commons from 2011 to 2014, added: "I agree with all that and I wouldn't encourage Professor Russell to moderate her description in any way. I think the behaviour of the government is going to be an absolutely key part in achieving trust, but I would also say that you can't manufacture trust, you can't instruct people to trust things, they've got to be shown to be trustworthy."

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