In a devastating judgment handed-down today the High Court has declared the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) attempts to cut off funding for important public interest cases concerning UK complicity in, and acts of, torture to be unlawful. In a victory for the rule of law, Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Stadlen today quashed the changes to the legal aid rules that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) put in place at the instigation of the MoD.
The judgment represents an outright success for the peace and human rights activist Maya Evans, who brought the judicial review claim after the MoJ altered the legal aid rules in an attempt to stifle cases such as her own successful challenge to UK complicity in torture in Afghanistan. Acknowledging the importance of that action, the Court today commented in its judgment: “It seems likely that but for Evans No. 1 the situation of detainees liable to be handed over to the NDS [Afghan Intelligence Service] would never have been subject to the scrutiny of the English courts” .
In today’s case, the High Court heard startling evidence that the former Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth MP, personally intervened with Justice Ministers to ensure that torture cases were cut off at their source. In one such letter to the MoJ, the Secretary of State for Defence brazenly stated:
“the Ministry of Defence has been faced with a series of judicial review applications arising out of the intervention in Iraq. In most of these cases the consequences of an adverse judgment could be extremely serious for our defence, security, and foreign policy interests and we are defending them vigorously, although at some cost in terms of time and effort in our legal and operational policy departments..This..leads me to wonder whether the time is right for a look at the rules…” 
Giving the lead judgment today, Lord Justice Laws condemned the MoD and MoJ actions as follows:
“For the State to inhibit litigation by the denial of legal aid because the court’s judgment might be unwelcome or apparently damaging would constitute an attempt to influence the incidence of judicial decisions in the interests of government. It would therefore be frankly inimical to the rule of law.”  [emphasis added]
Lord Justice Laws goes on to rule that the MoJ consultation which preceded the change to legal aid rules was also unlawful due to its lack of transparency as to what the real reasons for the changes were, stating “the contents [of the consultation paper] are, to say the least, surprising” . He pointed to the “muscular representations”  that would have been advanced if the true reasons were made known and criticised the consultation as “disingenuous” , and containing “significant understate[ment]” . He concludes that “consultees should have been informed” .
Speaking today, Maya Evans said:
“In my previous case I had the opportunity to shine a light into the dark recesses of the UK’s torture policy in Afghanistan, to the benefit of hundreds of prisoners and, ultimately, the British public. I am thrilled that similar opportunities are now preserved for future concerned citizens as a result of this victory.”
Daniel Carey of Public Interest Lawyers said:
“These cuts to legal aid never were about saving money. They were about the Government’s attempts to avoid accountability by cutting off litigation at its source. The court’s outright rejection of this is a significant victory for the rule of law.”
Phil Shiner, the head of Public Interest Lawyers, said:
“A Senior Court of Appeal Judge has made clear that the MoD’s behaviour in persuading the MoJ to change the rules secretly was an outrage to the rule of law. The courts will not tolerate such covert dishonesty and the MoD must now face the consequences of what it sanctioned in Iraq and Afghanistan.”