Minister insists PM isn't trying to weaken judiciary's independence

PUBLISHED: 13:10 16 January 2020 | UPDATED: 13:20 16 January 2020

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson is not trying to intervene in the independence of judiciary, the attorney general has claimed.

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eoffrey Cox also told MPs there is "no question of weakening judicial review" under a review of the constitution, adding that the question is whether the process can be made "more efficient" and focused on its purpose of holding the government to account.

Labour raised fears that the prime minister will use the review to seek "some sort of vengeance" after the Supreme Court last year ruled that his decision to suspend parliament was unlawful, which came during an intense political clash over Brexit.

Speaking in the Commons, shadow solicitor general Nick Thomas-Symonds asked Cox to further outline Tory manifesto plans to "update the Human Rights Act and administrative law" - including on judicial review.

Cox replied: "What I can say is there are widespread concerns throughout our society, throughout this House, as to whether or not judicial review is sometimes being used in a manner - often frivolous applications brought - that needs better focus and care in the procedures and tests.

"We're going to have a look at that, we're going to see whether or not the elements of judicial review could be better designed to serve the purpose that judicial review is for - which is to hold the government to account for its administrative decisions."

Thomas-Symonds said the reality is governments are sometimes vindicated in the courts and sometimes face "uncomfortable" decisions, adding: "The answer is never to attack the independence of our judiciary or our courts system.

"There's a real worry that the Prime Minister is seeking some sort of vengeance because he didn't like the decision of the Supreme Court to say that his prorogation of Parliament was unlawful.

"Doesn't the attorney general agree with me that, if we are to weaken judicial review, it won't be the Prime Minister who loses out, it'll be all our constituents whose rights to hold public authorities to account will be watered down?"

Cox replied: "There is no question of weakening judicial review.

"The question is whether we can make it more efficient, streamlined and focused on the purpose, which is holding the Government to account for its administrative decisions."

Cox said some cases thrown out by the courts "perhaps should never have been started", adding that they want to prevent the courts being "clogged up with those applications".

He went on: "Let's wait and see. The government is looking at this extremely carefully but I want (Thomas-Symonds) to understand one thing - there is no question of backsliding upon the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary."

Labour's Afzal Khan earlier asked Cox to guarantee that the government will "never withdraw" from the European Convention on Human Rights in "any circumstance".

Cox said he wanted to "reassert the government's complete commitment" to its membership and subscription to the convention, at which point Tory former minister Sir Desmond Swayne could be heard saying: "How disappointing."

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