April 26, 2023

“Because we are not a charity, with narrowly defined objectives, we have to ask ourselves constantly what we are for,” confesses Good Law Project chief Jolyon Maugham, in his new fundraising pamphlet disguised as a memoir, Bringing Down Goliath. It is a good question, since, to the casual observer, it may appear that the GLP’s short history of noisily accusing government departments of wrongdoing has achieved very little. Those who might want answers — judges and donors, for instance — can find them in the book, but only if they look closely.

Maugham’s cases have occasionally succeeded. In 2019, he had a hand in the application that led to the Scottish Court’s ruling that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful. Unfortunately, two hours later, the High Court in London gave its reasons for having rebuffed Gina Miller’s plea for the same decision five days earlier. It rather overshadowed Maugham’s efforts, much to his irritation: “The decision of Scotland’s highest court made barely a ripple in the national press. The BBC made room for a single interview with me on its news channel.”

Nevertheless, his work here was arguably of public benefit. I have heard persuasive moral defences of Boris Johnson’s 2019 prorogation of Parliament, but most lawyers, even on the Right, saw it as a constitutional travesty, and one that could have set a dangerous precedent.

More often, though, the GLP loses, which costs them. Last year, they were ordered to pay more than £350,000 to the Government Legal Department to cover the expense of defending failed GLP claims. This sum was mainly crowdfunded from small donors. People are free to donate as they please, of course, but questions about transparency — a virtue vaunted by the GLP — continue to swirl. When the High Court rules that your claim “fails in its entirety”, and orders you to pay 80% of the other side’s costs, as they did to the Good Law Project in their Covid appointments action, is it really ethical to spin that outcome to donors as an unalloyed victory — as having won “at every substantive level”? Yes, all right, Maugham’s co-claimant got part of what he wanted (a limited “declaration”), but both of them failed to persuade the court of the headline allegation of “cronyism”. Never — ever — to be deterred, Maugham insists that this failure was only at “a deeply technical level”, now a droll euphemism for a forensic spanking.

Indeed, the judgment in that case could be seen as paving the way for tighter restrictions on who can bring a claim for Judicial Review, which is the GLP’s modus operandi. The requirement that a claimant has to have a “sufficient interest” in the impugned decision has long been interpreted generously, in favour of campaigning groups and the like. But Maugham’s scattergun shirtiness and unabashed politicising has severely tested that generosity. Lord Reed, now president of the Supreme Court, said in 2012 that “a distinction must be drawn between the mere busybody and the person affected by or having a reasonable concern in the matter”. Thanks to the GLP’s busybodying, successive Lord Chancellors have threatened to tighten up the “sufficient interest” test, in a way that is unlikely to benefit the public. Is this what the Good Law Project is for?

Fortunately, the Napoleonic ambition of Maugham’s project looks beyond the law of Judicial Review. The GLP is now planning legal action against Instagram’s parent company, Meta, for irresponsible advertising to children. They have instructed a “global law firm” to “scan Europe for the best jurisdictions in which to litigate”. “We don’t know whether the case will win,” Maugham adds.

Thank goodness, then, that a “better metric” than success-rate, as he informs the reader, is “the frequency and aggression of the attacks directed against us by Government ministers”. Rishi Sunak once named him 10 times in a press release on plans to put tighter limits on “lawfare” — as Jolyon tells us at least three times. One gets a sense that here is where he gets his kicks. “There is no greater compliment you can be paid by the power you challenge than to force it to speak your name, to breathe into your lungs the air of power, of saliency”.

With his beady lawyer’s eye, Maugham identifies wrongdoing and forces Tory ministers to stop cheating, or so the story goes. But Bringing Down Goliath is a bold title for a tale in which Goliath suffers nothing worse than the occasional stubbed toe. Towards the end of the book, the myth-making gives way to something closer to reality. Referring to their litigation over the procurement of PPE during the pandemic, Maugham writes: “we generated literally thousands of pieces of mainstream, national media coverage about the scandal… Against that background, the ultimate decision in the case was almost irrelevant.” And so he admits what many have long suspected: the Good Law Project sees the Administrative courts as Just Stop Oil sees snooker tables — as a platform for attention-seeking.

As a youngster, Maugham says, he never doubted that he would be successful. And if we adopt his definition of success — basically, winding people up ‘til they slag you off — he was correct. It is his insistence that he is, and was at all relevant times, right that precipitates much of the text of this work. (“Of course I get stuff wrong sometimes,” he concedes, but details are not shared.) Journalists who upset him, colleagues who question him, solicitors who take against him, and of course judges who find against him: they all have their turpitude explained to them, in painstaking detail. This book has a central and unfulfilled purpose in common with the Good Law Project itself: the protection and improvement of the reputation of Jolyon Maugham KC.

Some who have paid attention to the sententious verbiage, the heavy-worn learning, the big head on narrow shoulders, compare Maugham to a windy little vicar from a 19th-century novel. For others, the fictional character most readily called to mind by his obsessive score-settling and unbending devotion to status — so much dinner, with so many very senior civil servants — is Alan Partridge. “Giving a speech on receiving the Praeses Elit in Dublin,” begins one of Maugham’s sentences, before it clarifies: “a prize awarded to those who have advanced the discourse in their line of work and are a source of inspiration to young people”. On this occasion, he “reflected on Gandalf standing on the bridge at Khazad-dûm in The Lord of The Rings. The fiery twin-horned Balrog approaches. And, although Gandalf knows the Balrog is too much for him, he plants his staff on the bridge and he says: ‘You shall not pass’.” As with Partridge, so with Maugham: he is much funnier than he intends to be.

Good law is difficult and, to most people, rather boring. It does not play well on social media. One benefit of the less highly networked culture of the recent past is that the acquisition of influence tended to be slow, and meritorious; whereas today, a certain kind of status within the ever-growing online legal world can be achieved swiftly, by playing to the cheap seats. So, for the time being at least, it is hard to completely refute Maugham’s clichéd insistence that “the real court is that of public opinion”.

We may look to the future with some foreboding, then; but for the GLP, it seems bright. Big plans are underway, involving tech platforms, shareable legal advice, and “ready-made legal structures” to provide “new ways for communities to live and be”. Though Maugham admits that he “can’t claim to have built a social movement”, that is clearly where his ambitions lie. And if he fails, well, the publicity generated in the attempt will render it a success — although perhaps not on a deeply technical level.