The head of a local government legal team has praised judicial review for its role in helping to improve legislation, and questioned the reasons given by the previous lord chancellor to curb the right to bring proceedings. 

Two years ago, then lord chancellor Chris Grayling (pictured) announced curbs on entitlement to apply for judicial review, saying that ‘needless’ proceedings were causing new projects to fall by the wayside. 

But Shirley Jarlett, assistant director of Essex Legal Services, the in-house service of Essex County Council, today stressed the vital role judicial review plays in local government decisions.

She told a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar on judicial review, that: ‘If local authorities find ourselves on the wrong side of a legal challenge, it gives ammunition to effect changes to legislation.’

The role of the monitoring officer would be made much harder without judicial review, she said, warning that any weakening of review could potentially lead to unlawful decisions.

‘This could damage the reputation of local authorities with the general public,’ Jarlett said.

Although she admitted that judicial review can be expensive, with legal costs running as high as £50,000, she praised it as an ‘effective process’.

Essex and other local authorities have not seen any increase in judicial review, she said, and in recent years only a handful of cases proceeded to a hearing. Many were settled before a hearing and a middle ground was often found, she said.

What Essex council does fear, Jarlett said, is the increase in numbers of litigants in persons, which she said is pushing up costs for both local authorities and the courts. 

However Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, told the conference that it was ‘disappointing’ the way judicial review is developing, although he said it is still ‘essential to our system’.

In immigration cases, he said, more disputes should be settled by tribunals, pointing out that JR was intended to be a remedy of last resort. ‘One of the most important things that is happening is the moving of the great majority of immigration cases out of judicial review into special tribunals,’ Woolf said.

‘This helps access to justice and I think it provides a better result for the applicant than would be often achieved for the courts. It also means that the very scarce resources of the High Court judges could be used where they could used to best effect.’

But ultimately, he said, judicial review, combined with the Human Rights Act, ensures the rule of law is achieved.