Government courts plan would be ‘tyranny’ and end of democracy, says former attorney general

But a Downing Street spokesperson has downplayed the reports of new powers for ministers

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 06 December 2021 19:02
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<p>Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is said to have drawn up the proposals (Victoria Jones/PA)</p>

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is said to have drawn up the proposals (Victoria Jones/PA)

Plans to give the government power to ignore court decisions it doesn't like would amount to “tyranny” and spell the end of democracy, a former Conservative attorney general has said.

Dominic Grieve, who was the cabinet minister in charge of the judiciary under David Cameron, said proposals reported on Monday were “worrying” and would see the UK “no longer living in a parliamentary democracy”.

It comes after an ally of Boris Johnson told The Times newspaper that the prime minister was considering a mechanism that would allow the government to regularly strike out a list of judicial rulings it did not agree with.

The plans, which would see an annual bill passed to overrule select decisions, are said to have been drawn up by the lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, and the attorney general, Suella Braverman.

Mr Johnson is said to believe that the existing courts bill – which has already been criticised by rights campaigners – does not go far enough. That bill will place new restrictions on use of judicial reviews, including in immigration cases.

The government has faced repeated defeats in the courts over its unlawful policies, including over Brexit and its decision to prorogue parliament in a bid to block MPs amending its plans.

The prime minister’s spokesperson downplayed the report on Monday, telling journalists that he was not aware of plans to introduce the change, though he stopped short of saying such a policy would never be introduced.

But Mr Grieve said the plans were “another example of the government’s failure to understand how the UK’s constitution actually works”.

“If you’re saying that simply because you have a parliamentary majority you can overturn judicial decisions at will – well yes, technically I suppose you can, but at that point you’re no longer living in a parliamentary democracy, you're actually living in a parliamentary tyranny,” he said.

The former attorney general said the change would remove checks and balances that were necessary for a function democracy.

“On that basis, you’re not going to live in a democracy anymore, it will be something significantly different, and it worries me that the government doesn’t seem to be able to see that and seems to be fixated on seeing judges as an obstacle to its aims when actually they’re very important in shaping good government,” he said.

Mr Grieve added: “The interplay between between judicial decisions and government decisions is one from which the government should learn and might occasionally should wish to pass a new law as a consequence. But the idea that once a year you pass a law overturning those judicial decisions of review which you don't like is deeply unacceptable and rather worrying.”

Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, and Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said in a joint statement that the plans were “nothing to do with teh sovereignty of parliament”.

“After a week when No 10 has behaved as though they are above the law when it comes to Covid regulations, we are now told they want to grant themselves the right to ignore the courts altogether,” they said.

“From the bedroom tax to the bombing of Yemen, the judicial review process exists so the public can challenge the government and other public bodies when it suspects they have broken the law.”

They added: “Incredibly, the government plans to subvert that process by taking on even more arbitrary powers, and in future, change the law to comply with their decisions, rather than change their decisions to comply with the law.

“This is nothing to do with the sovereignty of parliament, but all about the Henry VIII fantasies of a prime minister who thinks none of the rules the rest of us have to live by should ever be applied to him.”

Boris Johnson’s spokesperson downplayed the report, saying he was “not aware” of any plans to introduce the measure.

The changes in current legislation before parliament were “striking the right balance”, he said, insisting: “We fully respect the constitutional position of judges and the judiciary.”

“The prime minister is not looking to take that approach,” the spokesman said – although he stopped short of a full denial that such a crackdown could ever be introduced.

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