Banning religious services may have been illegal but other restrictions imposed by the government in England during the coronavirus lockdown were legitimate, a high court judge has ruled.
In a swiftly delivered decision, Mr Justice Lewis dismissed virtually every claim made in a legal challenge to what were said to be the “most sweeping and far-reaching” limitations on fundamental rights since the second world war.
The application for a judicial review had been brought by three people including Simon Dolan, a businessman whose Jota Aviation company has been delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS.
His lawyers argued last week that the emergency restrictions, announced by the prime minister on 23 March, were illegal, breached human rights laws and failed to take account of other significant factors.
But in a decision delivered on Monday, the judge declared the background to the case was the emergence of a novel pathogen of which there was limited scientific understanding and for which there was no effective treatment or vaccine.
The health secretary had acted lawfully and proportionately in making the health protection (coronavirus, restriction) regulations, Lewis said.
Restrictions on preventing people staying overnight other than at the place where they lived, for example, did not amount to a deprivation of liberty, the judge said. “The restrictions were a justifiable interference with the right to family life. They did not deprive the claimants of any property or possessions.”
The ban on gatherings, permitting only six people to gather in a public place and only two in a private place, “did restrict the freedom of assembly and, as such, infringed a freedom which was important in a democratic country”.
However, Lewis added: “The restrictions were intended to restrict the opportunities for transmission between humans … In all reality in those circumstances, there was no realistic prospect of a court deciding that in these, possibly unique, circumstances the regulation was a disproportionate interference with the rights [of assembly] conferred by article 11 of the [European convention on human rights].”
The only ground on which the judge concluded there might be an arguable case at a future hearing related to restrictions on religious services.
In allowing the parties to make further representations on that one area, he followed a little-noticed decision last month involving an application by the chairman of a Bradford mosque, Tabassum Hussain, who claimed it was disproportionate to ban religious services during lockdown. The judge in that case, Mr Justice Swift, said the case could be argued in a full judicial review hearing at a future date.
Referring to that ruling, Lewis declared: “The courts had already concluded that it was arguable that the restrictions on use of a mosque for communal prayers was an interference with the freedom of religion guaranteed by article 9 of the convention. That issue was, therefore, to be the subject of a full hearing to determine if any interference was justified.
“While it was similarly arguable that the restriction on communal worship in Roman Catholic churches may involve an unjustifiable interference with freedom of religion, that issue may have become academic in the light of amendments to the regulations which came into force with effect from 4 July. The parties were therefore invited to make further submissions on that issue.”
Responding to the ruling, Simon Dolan said: “The government imposed the most draconian set of rules this country has ever known. Yet today’s decision means that the courts believe it is perfectly fair and reasonable for the government to be able to lockdown its entire population and take-away livelihoods whenever it chooses – without having to justify its actions.”