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Artillery Row

Court out

Court delays and backlogs gave the government wide margins of authority during Covid-19

Now, the scientists have done it!”, said Boris, as he directed the nation away from dwelling on the previous nine months of government command and supervision and into the new era of the vaccine. The “biological jujitsu” performed by Pfizer provided hope for the future; a hope we had long awaited. 

Yet, new hope should not dull our minds to the point of forgetting the sting that we have felt over the past nine months as our fundamental freedoms have seemed to exist only at the mercy of the government. Just as last winter was passing, novel regulations constrained us to our homes, forbade us from gathering together, and gifted the police with additional powers. Then, emergency legislation banned our freedom of worship, disregarding centuries of this right being robustly protected by law 

We can all understand that politicians can be swayed by the pressures of a moment and scientific recommendations. But, surely the judiciary would be sitting – ready and waiting – to weigh up whether the interference with unprecedented restrictions on liberty was indeed proportionatenecessary, and in accordance with the law? 

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Court delays and backlogs already hampering access to justice have given the government wide margins of authority during Covid-19. And while the judiciary ought to independently interpret the law and provide appropriate remedies in a timely fashion when these powers have been unreasonably stretched, we’ve only seen limited judicial engagement with particular human rights arguments advanced by individuals. 

While we can now attend church, we have absolutely no assurance that the government will continue to let us practice our religion

In the first Dolan case, the case of the 3 million regular Sunday church worshippers was taken up by Ms Monks. Arguing that the ban on attending places of worship during lockdown 1.0 breached Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Ms Monk’s legal challenge stated that the fundamental human right to attend church had never before been restricted in the UK. Although the legal challenge was launched in April during lockdown 1.0, by the time the High Court reviewed the application in July, the judge declared Monk’s argument to be academic”, albeit valid. The 71 days of worship prohibition had, by that time, been superseded by slightly freer ‘Covid-compliant’ restrictions. 

Hearing the case at the end of October, judges of the Court of Appeal decided to withhold their judgment, delaying the outcome. Five weeks later, and only a few days after the government had confirmed that lockdown 2.0 (which again prohibited worship) would end, the judges said that the human rights argument had once more become “academic”. It was held that no historic arguments could be used, despite the judicial processes being engaged as soon as reasonably possible in April. The judgment simply said, “while the courts may entertain academic claims if there is a good reason to do so, there is none here”. To the claimant’s dismay, and despite there being significant public interest in the arguments being further scrutinised, the attempted appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected because it was decided that the case did not raise an arguable question in law. 

We have also seen unexplained delays with other challenges. When Mr Omooba, a church pastor and MBE-awarded social action entrepreneur, also attempted to challenge the ban on corporate worship, the government’s first response was, “it is clear that any challenge will fail”. In pursuing an application for permission to hear the case after lockdown 1.0, Omooba was left in limbo. This happened once again after court papers were filed in lockdown 2.0, even after 120 church leaders joined in with the claim; churches had ensured that premises were Covid-secure; Chris Whitty and Patrick Valance admitted that there was only weak medical support for closing churches; and MPs vocally contested the government’s ban on corporate worship. And yet, the legal challenge was left hanging again, without word from the court about when it would take the time to review it. A week later, the case was rejected. Of course, after the lockdown ended, this human rights challenge was “academic” too.  

Our fundamental freedoms seem to exist only at the mercy of the government

So where does it leave us? While we can now attend our churches in all 4 tiers, we have absolutely no assurance that the government will continue to let us practice our religion in the New Year. As swiftly and as easily as it came about the last two times, corporate worship may well again be abruptly banned. There will never be any proper accountability for these seemingly cyclical prohibitions on such historic freedoms as long as the courts just tell us that we’ve come too late. 

As Theresa May poignantly warned, “the government today making [worship illegal], for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a government in the future with the worst of intentions”. If the courts continue down the path of dither, delay, and denial, temporary suspensions of fundamental rights could well become permanently accepted. 

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