Ministers will trash UK rule of law if they ignore European court, says former Lord Chief Justice

Home Secretary Suella Braverman at the centre of fresh controversy over moves to allow ministers to ignore court rulings  (PA Wire)
Home Secretary Suella Braverman at the centre of fresh controversy over moves to allow ministers to ignore court rulings (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak was warned on Thursday that his Government will be setting an “extraordinarily bad example for a country committed to the rule of law” if it caves in to Tory Rightwingers and allows ministers to ignore European court rulings.

The stark warning came from former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd who stressed that a Government brushing aside court rulings that it did not like would be “symbolic of the breach of the rule of law”.

He added that the mooted changes, expected in amendments to the controversial Illegal Migration Bill, were likely to face a backlash in the Lords.

His comments came after a group of Conservative MPs were reported to have reached a deal with the Prime Minister to change new rules for removing people who arrive in the UK on small boats after threatening to revolt over the legislation.

Danny Kruger MP, who is on the Right of the party and among those leading the calls, said he was “grateful to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary for their work”, the BBC said.

A source close to the MPs reportedly said ministers had agreed to give the Home Secretary powers to disregard injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights - so-called Rule 39 orders - in some instances.

The source indicated a second amendment will also be introduced requiring British judges to decide a deportation would cause “serious and irreversible harm” in order to block it.

But Lord Thomas criticised the move to allow ministers to ignore these interim Rule 39 rulings.

“I certainly would think that it was a step of the absolute last resort and sets an extraordinarily bad example for a country committed to the rule of law to say the Government can ignore a judicial order,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I would have thought many people (in the Lords) would say that having the power to ignore a court order is something that unless the circumstances were quite extraordinary, this is a step that a Government should never take because it is symbolic of the breach of the rule of law.

“You are saying a Government can ignore a decision of the court.”

He added that the immigration reforms needed to be looked at “in the context of our adherence to the law”.

Government should be “precise” as to what the Home Secretary would be entitled to do, rather than giving her broad powers, he added, and where there are issues with the Strasbourg court it would be best to discuss them in the Council of Europe and if possible to try and ask the court to write its procedure.

Recent Tory administrations have already damaged Britain’s reputation for democracy and upholding the rule of law by unlawfully closing down Parliament during the Brexit rows and being willing to knowingly breach international law in the dispute over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements.

The Government was expected to publish the amendments on Thursday ahead of debates and votes next week.

The Bill has been at the centre of controversy, with critics warning the proposed legislation leaves the UK foul of its international obligations and opposition parties dismissing it as unworkable.

But Right-wing Tory MPs have signalled it does not go far enough, with some calling for ministers to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to drive through tighter border controls.

Others on the liberal wing want to see the Prime Minister commit to establishing safe routes via which asylum seekers can come to Britain.

The apparent compromise comes after Mr Sunak failed to guarantee he could achieve his plan to “stop the boats” by the next election and said it “won’t happen overnight”.

He had pledged to “stop the boats” as one of the five main priorities of his leadership.

But asked in an interview with Conservative Home whether he was confident he could do that by the next election, the Prime Minister said: “I’ve always said this is not something that is easy; it is a complicated problem where there’s no single, simple solution that will fix it.”

The Government’s Illegal Migration Bill is aimed at changing the law to make it clear people arriving in the UK illegally will not be able to remain in the country.

They will either be sent back to their home country or to a nation like Rwanda with which the UK has a deal, although legal challenges mean no flights carrying migrants have taken off for Kigali.

More than 5,000 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel this year.

Home Office figures published on Tuesday confirmed the provisional number of people making the journey to date in 2023 stands at 5,049.

A Government spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister and Home Secretary are focused on delivering the five priorities for 2023 - halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping the boats.

“While we have been clear there is no silver bullet, our Stop the Boats Bill will ensure anyone arriving illegally will be detained and swiftly removed, ending the unfair practice of people skipping the queue.”