Standing Isn’t Free

On the importance of thinking about costs, as well as benefits, of judicial review of administrative action

NB: This post has been prompted by my teaching and is first addressed to my students in Public Law 2 at Reading, but I hope that other readers, at least those interested in administrative law, will also find it of interest.

Who can challenge an administrative decision: only the persons directly affected by it or, well, just about anyone? This is the question of standing. US law resolutely sticks to the narrow view (as will be apparent, for example, from the discussion of the prospects of the challenges to President Biden’s debt-cancellation plan on this recent episode of Advisory Opinions). But Commonwealth jurisdictions have tended to take a broader view.

As Lord Hope put it in AXA General Insurance Ltd v Lord Advocate [2011] UKSC 46, [2012] 1 AC 868, (even as he disclaimed “risk[ing] a definition of what constitutes standing in the public law context”), “the interest of the person affected by or having a reasonable concern in the matter to which the application related” is enough. [63; emphasis added] This means that “[a] personal interest need not be shown if the individual is acting in the public interest and can genuinely say that the issue directly affects the section of the public that he seeks to represent.” [63] Or, in the more colourful words of Palmer J in Smith v Attorney-General [2017] NZHC 1647: “The requirement of standing in judicial review proceedings has been significantly relaxed in New Zealand. But it is not so relaxed that it is horizontal. It still exists.” [2] While there are differences between the UK and New Zealand approaches, this description is apt for UK law too.

But is this very considerable relaxation of the standing requirement ― when you need to say that something “still exists”, its existence, evidently, is a matter of some doubt ― a good thing? Or does the stricter, American-style, approach has something to recommend it? It is not, after all, without precedent in English law too. In R v Environment Secretary, ex p Rose Theatre Trust [1990] 1 QB 504, Schiemann J insisted that “the law does not see it as the function of the courts to be there for every individual who is interested in having the legality of an administrative action litigated”. (522) Doesn’t it, though?

The other view is exemplified in a much quoted (and sometimes implicitly referenced) statement of Sedley J in R v Somerset CC Ex p Dixon, [1998] Env LR 111 (1997):

Public law is not at base about rights, even though abuses of power may and often do invade private rights; it is about wrongs —that is to say misuses of public power; and the courts have always been alive to the fact that a person or organisation with no particular stake in the issue or the outcome may, without in any sense being a mere meddler, wish and be well placed to call the attention of the court to an apparent misuse of public power. (121)

The idea is that the law must see to it that public wrongs are set right, and that it matters little who commences the litigation that may lead to this beneficial result. The way I put it to students in my public law tutorials is that the people who take this view emphasise the “review” part of judicial review ― in contrast to those who stress the “judicial” part and so are wary of transforming courts into general-purpose defenders of the public interest.

But to say that an area of the law “is about wrongs” is not enough to show that it must make it possible to identify and ensure consequences for every wrong of the relevant kind that occurs. Just as the socially optimal amount of crime is not zero, so to the socially optimal amount of misuse of public power is not zero either. Some wrongs should actually go unredressed. The idea might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes good sense. The costs of a wrong, be it crime, misuse of public power, or anything else, must be set off against the costs of preventing or rectifying it. If prevention or redress consume more resources (money, time, brainpower, etc) than are lost as a result of the wrong itself, or indeed if they generate further wrongs, then they are wasteful, from the standpoint of society.

In the context of crime, this means, for example, that we wouldn’t want a police officer on every street corner. While their presence would probably deter and possibly help solve some meaningful number of crimes, it would be very costly. The cost, to be clear, is not just money, though that’s part of the story. Salaries are indeed costly, but so are the unseen opportunities lost due to all these people not doing something more productive than standing on street corners. And so, too, is the possibility that they may, if only to occupy themselves, harass or arrest people who are quite innocent.

Recognising all this does not mean that we do not care about crime and about the Rule of Law. As Lord Reed put it in AXA, “the protection of the rule of law does not require that every allegation of unlawful conduct by a public authority must be examined by a court, any more than it requires that every allegation of criminal conduct must be prosecuted”. [170] Acknowledging the costs involved simply means being realistic about the constraints that apply when our ideals come into contact with reality.

The same sort of thinking should apply in public law. While Sedley J and other advocates of expansive standing (such as Lady Hale) do not acknowledge this, some public wrongs are not worth redressing through judicial review because of the cost of doing so. Timothy Endicott’s Administrative Law textbook does make this point. Professor Endicott writes that “the test of standing is a proportionality test. … Proportionality in this case is a relation between the value of hearing a claim for judicial review and the process cost, and any process danger that may result.” (415) I think this is basically the right idea, but it worth unpacking further.

Professor Endicott’s review of the decided cases suggests that courts do, in fact, attach some importance to “the value of hearing a claim”, in that standing is the more easily granted the more serious the claim raised in a case is. And it is not exactly a surprise that courts would pay some attention to this despite sometimes embracing the justice-at-all-costs rhetoric exemplified by Sedley J’s dictum. I have argued here that something similar happens in the realm of procedural fairness. But this is only one side of the proportionality equation.

What about “process cost” and “process danger”? Professor Endicott’s survey suggests judicial interest in this may be limited, and he too has comparatively little to say about these things. I’m not even quite sure what the distinction between “costs” and “dangers” is. Carol Harlow’s article “Public Law and Popular Justice” focuses on a particular set of such concerns, perhaps dangers rather than costs: those that have to do with courts being transformed into political institutions and/or made to address polycentric problems for which they lack institutional competence.

I think these dangers are real, but there is more, too. I discussed the costs (and the benefits) of judicial review in an old post here. I won’t rehash everything I said then, but one point that bears repetition is that

all judicial review is in a real sense superfluous. Ordinary litigation is necessary in order to provide the parties with an authoritative determination of their legal position when that position is unknown or contested … But judicial review is not necessary to do this. The legal position of the party or parties involved has already been authoritatively determined … by an administrative decision-maker.

Perhaps I should have used a different word: judicial review is not so much superfluous as it is redundant, in the sense of providing an additional layer of protection to a system that could operate without it ― but at some real, and perhaps unacceptable, risk.

Be that as it may, the costs of judicial review, even those that accrue in any legal proceeding, are thus particularly significant. And some are peculiar to judicial review. Among other things, judicial review risks both unwarranted interference with the legitimate activities of government (insofar as anything the government does is legitimate) and, conversely, undue legitimation of government decisions that, while lawful and hence deserving of being upheld, are daft, immoral, or both. Ignoring these (and other) costs of judicial review does not make them go away; nor does it somehow strengthen the Rule of Law.

The other concern I have with Professor Endicott’s approach has to do with the concept of proportionality. As in human rights law, it seems to invite a comparison of things that cannot be assessed on anything like a common scale. As noted above, the costs of judicial review are not all reducible to pecuniary expenses, and its benefits are of course not pecuniary at all. How can we know that one is proportionate to the other? Professor Endicott argues that courts have not struck the right balance, allowing cases where there was no sufficient public interest in having the claims litigated to be brought forward, but with a proportionality approach, such arguments are inherently subjective.

What is more, case-by-case analysis of proportionality exacerbates what Professor Endicott laments as “[t]he irony of process”. This arises when

parties … need to be given more process than is actually due to them [because a] claimant without a sufficient interest in a matter is not entitled to be heard, but it is often necessary to hear the whole story from the claimant and the defendant in order to decide whether the claimant has a sufficient interest. (417; emphasis removed)

This, of course, only adds to the costs of judicial review: debates about standing have to be considered, on top of those of the substantive disputes.

In light of this, it is tempting to look for alternatives to proportionality in the form of clear, rigid rules. They might, of course, not be exactly right: perhaps they will allow some claims to go forward that should not, as is already the case now, Professor Endicott suggests. Or perhaps they will result in some unlawful decisions not being reviewed even though they should be. But if these rules can be applied straightforwardly and predictably, they will still be preferable to the uncertain proportionality approach, provided that they are reasonable proxies for where a case-by-case analysis would end up.

The argument for a narrower approach to standing, limiting it to those whose legal rights and obligations are directly affected by the administrative decision they seek to challenge, would have to be that this rule helps us distinguish those cases where the lawfulness of administrative action should be tested from those where doing so would be wasteful in a way that is more efficient than the proportionality approach preferred by Professor Endicott or the easy-going approach now preferred by the courts. I think this is possible: the redundant nature of judicial review is particularly salient in case where the applicant’s right and obligations are not involved, and it may be that it is also in those cases that the risks of undue interference with government, and perhaps also of undue legitimation of legally sound but morally questionable decisions arise. But this is just a tentative view for now.

What I am confident about is we must not neglect the costs of judicial review, even as we study and perhaps promote its importance and advantages. The ideals we seek to realise through the law are seldom unmitigated goods, and we do them no justice by forgetting about this. In judicial review as elsewhere, in the heavens as in on Earth, TANSTAAFL.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

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