Correspondence with Government has revealed they expect to spend a staggering £1 million defending our judicial review of their decisions to award contracts criticised by the NAO. This is a sum unprecedented in our lawyers’ experience of judicial review proceedings. We can’t but wonder whether they are trying to scare us off – using the bottomless public purse to avoid accountability to the public.
Government also says, remarkably, that finding out whether they acted lawfully in channelling hundreds of millions or billions to their VIP associates, is not in the public interest.
We had until recently been working on the understanding that we had raised enough money for our challenges to Government’s awards of hundreds of millions of pounds of PPE contracts to Pestfix, Ayanda, and Clandeboye.
We were shocked to learn that – having failed to provide the evidence we’ve been asking for since July – Government is threatening a vast disclosure exercise going well beyond what would normally be undertaken in a judicial review. And not just that they have hired an expensive international commercial law firm. They expect to have a team of 30-40 working for up to 3 months on an exercise that has not been requested by us, or by the Court.
In the experience of our legal team, costs incurred by Government in judicial review proceedings rarely exceed £100,000. Here Government says it has already spent over £325,000, and estimates their total costs will amount to £1 million – a staggering sum for a judicial review.
Government knows full well that we cannot take existential risk on bringing a single case. So we wrote to Government asking it to agree and order ‘capping’ both our costs and the taxpayers’ costs in these public interest proceedings.
We were shocked this week to receive their response contending that the litigation is not in the public interest, and refusing our proposed reciprocal cap: “In particular our client does not agree that the proceedings are ‘public interest proceedings'”. These are cases involving on Government’s own admission hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on unusable facemasks on companies that went through the VIP lane.
Not in the public interest? What are they on!
The point is all the more remarkable given that a barrister employed by the Government Legal Department in her witness statement of 30 November stated that: “We acknowledge that there is considerable public interest in Covid related procurement, particularly of PPE.”
We have now applied to the court for a Cost Cap. In line with our transparency principles I am publishing my Witness Statement. But if we don’t get one, unless a white knight or white knights emerge, the simple fact is we will have to abandon the litigation. We are not in a position to bear a £1 million risk.
Jolyon Maugham QC
Director of Good Law Project