September 24, 2022

Finance & Economy

Let's Talk About Investment

Judicial independence tainted by ministers, Commons inquiry finds | UK news

Table of Contents

Ministers have acted improperly by questioning the legitimacy of judges when they do not get their own way, creating an impression that recent supreme court decisions favourable to the government may have been a response to political pressure, a parliamentary inquiry has found.

The all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution (APPGDC) said that in the past the response of a government found to act unlawfully was to correct its ways but ministers would now sometimes misrepresent judicial decisions, question judges and threaten to reform the judiciary.

The APPGDC found that, in the last two years, the UK’s highest court made seven decisions in which it had departed from its previous authorities and assumed a position “more palatable” to the government – an “unprecedented” amount that “may have created the impression that the supreme court has been influenced by ministerial pressure”.

Geraint Davies MP, the APPGDC chair, said: “Our inquiry found that independence has been under attack from ministers and in the media with their questions about the impartiality of judges risking undermining public confidence in the law itself.

“At a time that the rule of law has been broken at No 10 and the human rights of refugees is centre-stage in the media, the case for a safeguarded and impartial judiciary is of critical importance to protect our fundamental values of democracy, rights and the rule of law from erosion in the future.”

The report on judicial independence, published on Wednesday after a four-month inquiry focused on public law (cases brought against the government or other public bodies), also found that the offices of lord chancellor and attorney general had become politicised.

It said the appointment to the roles of politicians with little or no legal experience or standing, in contrast to the past, meant that they did not speak up for judges when their ministerial colleagues acted inappropriately or when there were misrepresentations in the press, and even themselves engaged in attacks on the judiciary, perhaps with an eye on promotion. Davies said the role of lord chancellor had become “a political stepping stone from which to take pot shots at the judiciary”.

The report found that ministers had conflated “decisions with political consequences” with “political decisions”, thereby “giving the misleading impression that judges are stepping outside their constitutional bounds”.

It said there had been an impact on judges’ morale, citing a 2020 survey which found that 94% of judges were “concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the government’s conduct towards the judiciary.

In some of the seven decisions since 2020 in which the APPGDC said the supreme court had made “reversals” of previous decisions in relation to the government, the inquiry said that the court “appears to adopt similar language to that used in the [government’s] political talking points”. While the decisions could be explained by other factors, it “creates the troubling appearance (even if it is only an appearance) of the politicisation of the judiciary”.

The report says there should be statutory guidance for ministers on their constitutional duties to uphold the independence of the judiciary and on criteria for the appointment of law ministers.

A government spokesperson said: “We have the utmost respect for the judiciary and their freedom to make decisions without political interference.”