David Cameron's drive to speed up government and make Whitehall more business-friendly is to include a clampdown on the right to seek judicial review of asylum, immigration and environmental decisions, it has emerged.
The plans to reduce access to judicial review initially appeared to apply only to planning cases, but in a speech to the CBI Cameron went much further, saying the reforms would affect all types of cases, mainly by raising fees and imposing tighter time limits for applications.
Cameron confirmed he wanted civil servants to stop conducting routine equality impact assessments for legislation, which assess the likely effect of new policies on women, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, and to end cumbersome 12-week public consultations that delayed ministers from pressing ahead with their plans.
The number of judicial review applications each year has almost tripled in a decade due to a rise in immigration and asylum cases. Cameron said many were "completely pointless", with applications roughly five times more likely to be rejected than granted.
But the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: "There are already considerable hurdles imposed by the courts before a judicial review can be brought. There may be scope for reform but the basic characteristics of judicial review, of holding the executive to account in the exercise of wide powers, should not be lost."
Out of 11,200 judicial review applications made last year, according to Ministry of Justice statistics, more than two-thirds (8,649) related to immigration and asylum cases. Most judicial reviews are not based on a challenge to the merits of a government decision but the fairness and lawfulness of the procedures followed.
The former lord chancellor Ken Clarke has warned that the increasing use of the procedure is leading judges to make increasingly politicised interventions. Downing Street officials said it was impossible for ministers or No 10 to hold a discussion on any issue without some warning it was likely to be "JRed".
Arguing that judicial reviews were costing the taxpayer too much and slowing economic growth, Cameron told a CBI conference in London: "We urgently need to get a grip on this. So here's what we're going to do: reduce the time limit when people can bring cases, charge more for reviews so people think twice about time-wasting, and instead of giving hopeless cases up to four bites of the cherry to appeal, we will halve that to two."
Ministers said a public consultation on the plan would start by Christmas and be completed quickly. All the changes would be to civil procedure rules, not legislation. Justice ministry sources said the cost of reviews may be raised in some cases and the number of allowable appeals reduced in others.
In a co-ordinated announcement, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, said: "Judicial review is an important way to hold authorities to account and ensure decisions are lawful. However, there has been a huge growth in the use of judicial review, far beyond what was originally intended. The government is concerned about the burdens that ill-conceived cases are placing on stretched public services as well as the unnecessary costs and lengthy delays which are stifling innovation and economic growth.
"We plan to renew the system so that judicial reviews will continue their important role but the courts and economy are no longer hampered by having to deal with applications brought forward even though the applicant knows they have no chance of success."
Clarke told the Lords constitution committee in January 2011 that judicial reviews were leading to political interventions. "Because it is never on the merits and is always on the process, we develop ever-more elaborate processes. Sometimes, because a judge thinks an injustice has been done and he wants to correct it, he starts inventing all sorts of arguments about the audit trail and the consultation process in order to knock on the head a decision on which he feels sorry for the claimant or the group who are lobbying and he wants to find in their favour.
"If that gets taken too far, you will start finding that some judges get reputations as liberal judges and some get reputations as conservative judges."
Adam Chapman, a partner at the law firm Kingsley Napley, said: "The prime minister is missing the point. It is 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.
"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."
Carol Day, a solicitor with the World WIldlife Fund, said: "These proposals are hastily thought through and seriously misguided. The truth of the matter is that there are very few environmental cases, primarily because the cost of taking such cases is already prohibitively high. The UK is already in the European dock for failing to honour its commitments on access to environmental justice – these proposals destroy any last-minute chance of the government redeeming itself."
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