JUSTICE report: Rule of law under threat from UK government
The UK’s longstanding commitment to the rule of law is under grave threat according to a report from JUSTICE.
The report – The State We’re in: Addressing Threats & Challenges to the rule of law – looks at the importance of the rule of law as a legal concept fundamental to the proper functioning of our society, and at the various ways it has been eroded in recent years, both now and prior to the pandemic.
Fiona Rutherford, chief executive of JUSTICE, said: “There are multiple reasons why we have reached the parlous state we are in. Each one viewed in isolation does not amount to the wholesale negation of the rule of law – but taken together they create a picture suggesting that the rule of law is being incrementally undermined. We believe we have reached a tipping point and are determined to highlight a route back, before the UK’s standing both at home and abroad is fatally diminished for a generation.”
Today’s report finds that over the past decade and particularly in the last five years, the process of lawmaking has become less transparent, less accountable, less inclusive, and less democratic. For example:
- Public consultations, valuable for ensuring the government considers a wide range of views and evidence, are too often poorly conducted, if at all. This is clear from the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which was not subject to any public consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny despite having profound implications for the UK’s asylum system and human rights adherence. Equally, the Bill of Rights Bill consultation, which received 12,000 responses, with up to 90% of respondents opposed to key reforms, was completely sidelined.
There has been a growing legislative disregard for human rights. The health of the UK’s civic space has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ by the Civicus Monitor, a platform that monitors the state of civil society freedoms globally. Laws like the Public Order Act 2023 could have a chilling effect on our rights to freedom of thought, expression, and peaceful assembly.
- ‘Henry VIII’ powers, which allow ministers to amend or repeal laws through secondary legislation with little parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, have become more prevalent, adversely affecting the principle of legal certainty. This is evident in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, in which power is bounded by whether the minister thinks its exercise is ‘appropriate’, rather than it being objectively ‘necessary’.
- Cuts to legal aid have decimated universal access to justice and victims, witnesses, small businesses are left waiting months if not years for a trial. This has been compounded by the ongoing courts backlog crisis, where, as of March 2023, over 340,000 cases are outstanding in the Magistrates’ courts and over 62,000 in the Crown Court. Annual public expenditure on legal aid dropped by a quarter between 2009 and March 2022, resulting in ‘legal aid deserts’, with no access to legal advice at all.
Ms Rutherford added: “The backsliding on the rule of law over the last decade has real implications for us all. Protestors could face prosecution, potentially even for something as innocuous as challenging the closure of a library.
“The ability of people to hold the government to account when they have been wronged at the hands of the state, has been reduced, while at the same time, the law-making process has become less transparent and less inclusive. Ever more rules and regulations are being imposed without proper democratic oversight from Parliament. Society’s most marginalised or vulnerable, such as migrants, prisoners, and victims of police action, lack automatic access to justice and are a bellwether for the human rights reduction we all face.”
Key recommendations in the report include:
- The government must be prepared to take bold action, including repealing some of the legislation passed since 2019. While not exhaustive, this recommendation concerns at a minimum the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021, Parts 3 (Public Order) and 4 (Unauthorised Encampments) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Public Order Act 2023, and the Illegal Migration Act 2023.
- The government must reduce its reliance on the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers. If such powers are sought, they must be tightly drafted to ensure that they are used only when it is objectively necessary, they cannot be justified “solely by the need for speed and flexibility”.
- The government must cease to use inflammatory language that disparages the legal profession. Both lawyers and the judiciary play a crucial role in supporting the rule of law and, in particular, facilitating access to justice. Hostile comments, such as referring to an “unelected judiciary” or claiming lawyers are “abetting the work of criminal gangs” undermines the public’s perception of the judiciary’s independence, as well as the motives of lawyers.
- The government must prioritise tackling inequalities, for example through making Equality Impact Assessments mandatory part of the legislative process. This will help legislators to ensure they comply with their Public Sector Equality Duty, increase transparency, and provide a clear rationale for the government’s position and decision-making in the event of judicial review proceedings.
JUSTICE president, Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC said: “The past five years have seen an escalating trend in legislation and policy which fundamentally challenge human rights protections in the UK, from the ‘Spy Cops’ law to the Illegal Migration Act. As a consequence, the rule of law in this country is under unprecedented threat, and reversing this trend will take hard work and consensus across the political spectrum. We call upon all policymakers to properly consider this report and act upon it. The UK should be leading the way as a stalwart in the rule of law and democracy, not rolling back domestic protections.”