Fury and bewilderment at plans to curb judicial reviews

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Lawyers responded critically to the prime minister’s call today for measures to cut the number of applications for judicial review.

Adam Chapman, partner and head of public law at national firm Kingsley Napley, described the focus on judicial reviews as ‘a peculiar target’ in the quest for better economic competitiveness.

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James Thornton, chief executive of environmental law group ClientEarth, accused the prime minister of ‘the dark suggestion that the suspension of normal legal process is acceptable’.

In his speech to the Confederation of British Industry, David Cameron (pictured) said that the number of applications for judicial review had climbed from 160 in 1975 to 11,000 in 2011. Applications in ‘hopeless cases’ were hindering infrastructure investments and economic growth, the prime minister said. ‘We urgently need to get a grip on this.’

In a statement to coincide with the speech, the justice secretary Chris Gayling said that the government intends to seek views on a package of options that will include shortening time limits, restricting opportunities for an oral reconsideration of the application for permission in certain circumstances and introducing new fees.

‘The purpose of this is not to deny or restrict access to justice, but to provide for a more balanced and practicable approach, ensuring that weak, frivolous and unmeritorious cases are identified early, and that legitimate claims are brought quickly and efficiently to a resolution. In this way, we can ensure that the right balance is struck between reducing the burdens on public services, and protecting access to justice and the rule of law.’

Emily Williams, associate at international firm DLA Piper, said the reforms would be difficult to achieve while complying with EU law, particularly that concerning with environmental protection.

'Unless the prime minister envisages a shorter period within which to bring such legal challenges and a faster track process in the Administrative Court it is difficult at this stage to foresee how a significant reduction in the number of challenges or the time to determine them can be achieved within a timescale that will assist current projects.'

Chapman said it was ‘a myth’ that judicial review is stopping the government from proceeding with policies to help boost the economy. ‘Although there has been significant growth in the number of judicial review cases brought, the increase has been in cases about immigration and asylum – it’s nothing to do with stopping the government from taking steps to assist business.’

In non-immigration and asylum cases, the number of cases has actually gone down since 2006, he said.

Chapman said there is already a requirement to bring cases promptly and it is difficult to see how that can sensibly be reduced. ‘The real delays in the system arise at the courts, once cases have been brought and the answer is to resource the courts better, not to set up an unfair barrier that would not discriminate between so-called "pointless" cases and the valid cases that are brought to ensure that public bodies act lawfully.’

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