Crowd-funded campaigners challenging the lawfulness of contracts for protective equipment awarded at the height of the Covid crisis have accused the government of bullying them over legal costs. 

Claimants the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor, whose challenge will be heard in May, said yesterday that the High Court had granted a cost-capping order of £250,000. The ruling means the claimants will be able to cover the government’s costs bill if they lose the case. The two groups said the government had pleaded that it would cost £1m to defend the case – a figure they described as ‘unbelievable’. They asked the court to cap their exposure at £100,000.

The claimants are challenging the lawfulness of contracts awarded to so-called ‘VIP lane’ companies. As of Tuesday night, the claimants had raised more than £250,000  through the CrowdJustice website to fund the case.

In a separate case brought by the Good Law Project, the High Court ruled last Friday that the Department of Health had acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of Covid contracts within the 30 days set by government guidance.  

In his judgment, Mr Justice Chamberlain criticised the secretary of state for not taking the ‘sensible course’ and admitting that in a substantial number of cases he had breached public pontracts regulations. ‘If that had been done, this litigation, which by the time of the hearing had cost the secretary of state alone some £207,000, might not have been necessary.’

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: ‘It is absolutely true that the case didn’t need to happen because it hasn’t had any material impact… We accepted in full these things were published a fortnight late. That is not in dispute. We argued the public interest defence [that] it was in the national interest.’

Ahead of the costs hearing, the Good Law Project said: ‘We are a small not-for-profit, funded by donations from members of the public. We cannot bear this kind of existential risk.’ The organisation accused the government of trying to ensure that those bringing the case were ‘bullied out by costs’. Dr Julia Grace Patterson, chief executive of EveryDoctor, tweeted that the government was attempting to ‘intimidate’ campaigners into dropping the cases.