The principles that underpin society are at risk but there is hope, writes Robert Buckland
The rule of law has been for too long almost taken for granted in our country — and a recent report is an important reminder that we do this at our peril.
It is a timely intervention as we enter party conference season and election manifestos are crafted because the rule of law must be at the heart of all future policy making. It cannot be dismissed as mattering only to “lefty lawyers”, as some of my colleagues in the profession have been unfairly portrayed. Its profound importance underpins the very health of our democracy.
The rule of law is notoriously difficult to define but, according to the late Lord Bingham, the former lord chief justice and law lord, it consists of equality before the law, checks on the exercise of power and access to justice.
These principles are the pillar of our constitution and values. They protect the rights of our citizens, are the bedrock of the UK’s commercial system and are critical to our reputation abroad. Yet we cannot take these principles for granted.
It is not simply recent governments in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic who shoulder responsibility for the state we are in, although legislation such as the Illegal Migration Act and the Home Office’s Rwanda Policy are prime examples of the problem.
The disparagement of the judiciary and legal profession has long been in evidence, in the face of judgments adverse to the government, conduct to which successive Labour home secretaries have not been immune.
Equally problematic is that access to justice has been affected by successive cuts to legal aid and we have a courts backlog that has built up over time and is now alarming. Furthermore, governments of all hues have resorted to skeleton legislation and Henry VIII powers as a convenience rather than an exception to enact their will.
In the latest report from the campaign group, Justice, analysis of the various pieces of legislation that have been passed exposes a worrying de-prioritisation of human rights and equality, which does not stand scrutiny against Lord Bingham’s tests. Sadly, there is no silver-bullet solution to get us back on track.
The starting point is undoubtedly recognition: if we all acknowledge the current fragility of the rule of law and the need to nurture this long-standing tradition if it is to be passed on to, and benefit, future generations, then there is hope for improvement.
The rule of law may not be a concept that is readily understood by all voters, but it underpins what the public expects of a responsible government and encourages a society that cherishes this most British of values.
Sir Robert Buckland KC is a former justice secretary, lord chancellor and the MP for South Swindon