Never trust a Government that fails to defend the rule of law

Posted by Martha Spurrier on 10 November 2016

Last week, judges were asked to perform their centuries-old role of applying the law to the facts of a case before them. Quite apart from the merits or otherwise of the decision made, what had for hundreds of years been a cherished pillar of our democracy, the envy of many less fortunate around the world, suddenly became the focus of outrage, indignation and vicious personal attack.

Modern Britain was built on two principles: that every citizen, including those in power, is governed by the law, and that those laws are applied by independent judges – not by partisan politicians.

It is because of these principles that we are entitled to a fair trial based on the facts of our case rather on who we are or who we have offended. These principles make sure that the rights of ordinary people are protected when the powerful do things wrong. They ensure equal treatment and protect minorities from the whims of the mighty. Without them, our representatives could behave as though the rules don’t apply to them and governments could dismiss any challenge against their actions – or have their critics thrown in jail, as happens in many countries around the world.

This is the rule of law, and it is the one thing standing between us and abuses of power – whether by a dictator or by mob rule. No one is above the law.

Freedom of speech and press is, of course, also fundamental to our democracy – and it’s something Liberty will always stand up for. When a judge rules against us in one of our legal challenges, we might disagree and we might say so.

But we would never launch personal attacks on individual judges, especially on the basis of their sexuality or gender. And we would never call into question the very notion of independent judges – which is exactly what several newspapers and politicians did last week. UKIP leadership contender Suzanne Evans even went as far as arguing that judges should be subject to “democratic control”.  

Judges aren’t allowed to defend themselves or their decisions – which is why the Lord Chancellor, when appointed, vows to uphold the independence of our judicial system and the rule of law. But Liz Truss was slow to defend our judges, and disturbingly lukewarm when she finally spoke up to support them.

There is nothing wrong with voicing disagreement with a judgment, but those in positions of influence should remember that their words have consequences.

It’s in all of our best interests that judges can apply their knowledge and expertise without fear or favour – an environment in which judges are intimidated is dangerous for us all.

Sadly, we are not surprised that this Government didn’t step up to defend our independent judges. It is, after all, this Government that has an ignominious track record of undermining the rule of law and access to justice. It is this Government that is determined to vilify “activist human rights lawyers” – those who help ordinary people hold the state to account for abuse and neglect.

Liberty’s members know never to trust a Government that seeks to protect its own power by attacking the ways that citizens’ can defend their rights. Ministers are chipping away at the foundations of our democracy. Together we will strive to uphold it.

Martha Spurrier Liberty

Martha Spurrier