A decision about the rule of law

The Supreme Court decision on access to Employment Tribunals has wider implications than for those tribunals alone.  Lord Reed, in a judgment approved by most of his colleagues, emphasised strongly that access to justice was fundamental to the rule of law.

At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade.

But there are at least three further circumstances in which the executive branch prevents benefits claimants from obtaining access to justice – not just failing to help, but actively putting obstacles in their path.  The first is the case of Mandatory Reconsideration, which deliberately creates a barrier between the claimant and the courts.  Evidence to Parliament by HH Judge Robert Martin, President of the Social Entitlement Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal, was that

the introduction of MR, rather than leading to a justified reduction in appeals, might discourage claimants who might have had “winnable” cases from appealing, because they found the process too onerous.

Lord Reed argues that “impediments to the right of access to the courts can constitute a serious hindrance even if they do not make access completely impossible.”  If there is a difference in principle between this and the Employment Tribunal case, I can’t see it.

The second is the case of sanctions, where penalties are imposed without a hearing and prior to any consideration of objections.   Michael Adler has argued, I think rightly, that the  current sanctions regime is not consistent with the established principles of the rule of law.

The third is the result of a decision by the House of Lords, the predecessor of the Supreme Court.  In Chief Adjudication Officer v Bate [1996] 2 All ER 790 HL, they decided that where it was found that the DWP had previously acted unlawfully, they would not have to apply the revised rule to previous cases, because it would be too burdensome to do it.  In other words, those who had suffered injustice had no right or reasonable prospect of having  injustice corrected.  In the decision reported today, Lord Reed argues “Access to the courts is not, therefore, of value only to the particular individuals involved”, and he cites a previous Lord Chancellor:  “The courts are for the benefit of all, whether the individual resorts to them or not.”  Just so.  The decision in Bate was a disgraceful misjudgment, and it is time the Court corrected it.

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