What should we make of the Times story yesterday, which appeared under the headline ‘Boris Johnson Plans To Let Ministers Throw Out Legal Rulings’? The impression given is that ministers will somehow be handed powers by the Prime Minister simply to ignore court rulings that they do not like. That would lead to an extraordinary constitutional crisis, involving either the arrest and imprisonment of ministers for contempt of court, or the arrest and imprisonment of judges with the government exercising Erdogan-style despotism.
Nobody can seriously believe that this is what is intended, and the rest of the Times story makes clear that it is not. Instead, the idea which is said to find favour with the Justice Secretary and the Attorney General, is ‘an annual “Interpretation Bill” to strike out findings from judicial reviews with which the government does not agree’.
That, of course, is a very different thing from giving ministers a power to ignore awkward court rulings. Parliament has always had the power to pass statutes to reverse court judgments. But an annual bill to reverse particular rulings seems not so much sinister, as ridiculous and unworkable.
Passing an Act of Parliament takes time. A bill must be drafted. Time must be found for all its stages in both Houses of Parliament. If there is to be an annual Interpretation Act, other legislation will have to be dropped. Aggrieved ministers cannot expect that the bills will be nodded through parliament without objection. They will deal with contentious matters and will be opposed and amended. The House of Lords would not find itself constrained by convention, because reversing particular judgments will not have featured in any manifesto.
And while ‘reversing legal rulings’ might sound conceptually easy, the practicalities are another matter altogether.