Labour cannot reverse Tory legal aid cuts, Sadiq Khan says
will repeal restrictions on judicial review and make it easier for people to challenge government decisions they believe are unlawful, Sadiq Khan has pledged.
In an interview with the Guardian, the shadow justice secretary said he would reverse the coalition’s bitterly-resisted courtroom reforms if his party won the election.
Khan, who masterminded Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, admitted Labour could not reinstate £600m of legal aid cuts imposed by the government but said making it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain support from a lawyer would be a priority.
Parliamentary battles over judicial review – a means of questioning the legality of decisions made by government or local authorities – resulted in peers, including rebel Tories, repeatedly defeating the coalition.
The legislation, eventually passed last month in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, introduced additional financial liabilities, measures to forcibly identify those who support litigation and restrictions intended to deter human rights groups and others from intervening in claims.
Attack on key safeguard
It is unusual for a legal manoeuvre to become the subject of such intense political dispute. David Cameron has blamed the increase in judicial reviews for delaying planning developments and deportations. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has accused charities and leftwing campaigners of exploiting it to promote political agendas.
Khan said: “I’m really worried about the government’s attack on judicial review. When I was a lawyer, I used judicial review to challenge public authorities. When I became a minister, I accepted that judicial review was a pain in the backside: civil servants had to check and double-check. It may have been a nuisance but it’s a very important safeguard.
“So I will reverse all the changes the government has made. It’s important that the executive respects the powers citizens have to hold us to account.
“We need to give citizens the ability to challenge when they think there have been failings in decisions made by ministers, governments and councils … The new act has a chilling effect. It insulates power, makes us complacent and think that we can disregard procedural fairness, disregard consultation.
“If you are someone who wants to challenge power, you are now scared to do so. You are worried about your costs as a community group in challenging a public authority decision. That’s not the sort of country I want to live in.”
Expanding FoI requests
Removing restrictions on judicial review, Khan said, complements the party’s promise to expand the reach of freedom of information (FoI) requests to cover private companies, such as G4S or Capita, in relation to their public service work.
“This government tried to introduce a fee for FoI applications,” he explained. “We will not do so. More and more public services, paid for by taxpayers, are being run by private companies who are outside the scope of freedom of information.” That expansion, he believes, will open up private contractors that run prisons, courtroom and health services to public scrutiny.
The MP for Tooting, south London, derided Conservative election proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European court of human rights (ECHR).
“The idea of abolishing the HRA in the 800th centenary year of Magna Carta is ridiculous,” he said. “We are going to stay as signatories to the European convention on human rights, but I’m quite clear as a former lawyer that we don’t have to follow blindly what Strasbourg says.”
On the issue of whether UK prisoners should get the vote, as the ECHR has ruled, Khan said he was in favour of doing “the minimum” that would satisfy the court.
Review of domestic violence legal aid test
One legal aid priority will be to review the eligibility test that victims of domestic violence must pass to obtain legal aid to pay for representation.
“I speak to lawyers who say they have clients who come in to see them, say they have suffered abuse and are told they have to provide evidence,” said Khan.
“The clients often leave the office and never return. That worries me. So I’m looking at what we can do to tackle this. If there was one legal aid change to reverse, this would be the one.” There have been calls from women’s groups for the test – which requires evidence of abuse in the previous two years – to be scrapped.
Khan is an enthusiastic supporter of Ed Miliband and the party’s mansion tax policy. “It’s one of the most progressive policies you can have,” he said.
The shadow justice secretary believes the last 92 hereditary peers should be removed from the Lords and backs party plans to establish a constitutional convention immediately after Labour takes power. Among proposals to be examined are a senate of the regions in England and Wales and the possibility of a written constitution.
Asked whether he would prefer to be justice secretary in a Labour government or mayor of London, he said: “Both are my dream jobs. I’m a sports fan: I know the most important match is the next one – on 7 May, to make sure people have a Labour government.” Fortunately for Khan, the mayoral race will not start in earnest until after the results of the general election are known.
Need for diversity
The Tooting MP, whose father was born in Pakistan, was the first Muslim politician ever to attend a cabinet meeting. The disappearance of three teenage girls from east London, who are believed to have travelled to Syria, alarms him.
“My two girls are 13 and 15,” he said. “It’s really worrying for parents. Here you have British girls who were well integrated but all the evidence suggests they were radicalised in their bedrooms.
“So we have to make sure that young people have resilience, that it’s possible to be British, Muslim and a woman and a Londoner. We all have multiple identities.”
Ensuring that there is diversity among those in high profile positions is crucial, Khan believes. “This issue of role models is so important. When I was growing up we didn’t know any professionals. My life experiences were all on a council estate. I had great teachers who encouraged me.
“But there are some people who reach 16 or 17, who are confused about their identity. They may have no one to support them. They may meet a charismatic preacher; it may be online, maybe in someone’s front room who will tell them, that not possible to be British and Muslim.
“So it’s important to have judges who are from diverse backgrounds. It’s important to have journalists and politicians who are diverse. Then you won’t feel different to society.
“I talk to my cousins in Pakistan. They say in London I have fulfilled my potential. far better than they can. We are blessed in so many way in this country. These three girls, these children were being groomed. We should be worried.”