Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham: ‘They see us pushing back hard’

As the Good Law Project’s latest legal challenge to the government draws to a close this week, its founder, Jolyon Maugham, has revealed the extent to which the case has got under ministers’ skin.

Haroon Siddique 

The judicial review over contracts for personal protective equipment awarded without competition concludes on Tuesday, almost two months to the day since the barrister received a letter from the government’s lawyers. “I was asked by the government legal department to refer myself to my professional regulator, the Bar Standards Board,” the QC tells the Guardian. Maugham says he refused and invited the government to refer him itself, as he says many others he has irked have done.

“I don’t think they have, which from my perspective is rather a pity because I think they would have got short shrift from my regulator. It would be a little awkward for the government legal department to refer me to my regulator and then for my regulator to clear me. It would look very obviously like what it felt like at the time, namely an attempt to bring the power of the state to bear on the silencing of a very vocal critic.”

The lawyers’ letter was a response to documents leaked to Maugham, which were shared with the press. Having held himself out as someone delivering transparency and accountability, Maugham says: “Behaving consistently with what I set out to do actually is upholding the standards of a courageous, independent bar.”

The Good Law Project was involved in the high-profile Brexit cases concerning prorogation of parliament and the triggering of article 50. Last year it brought judicial reviews relating to the environment and to the exam results fiasco. But it was cases such as the current one brought with the campaign group EveryDoctor, relating to the opaque award of Covid contracts, sometimes to suppliers with questionable relevant experience and/or who were political associates, that thrust it into the spotlight. “That sleaze narrative around this government, I think we can properly claim a significant part of the credit for,” says Maugham.

In Good Law’s annual report, the former Brexit secretary David Davis praises its work in holding the government to account, while Maugham claims government lawyers have told him the organisation is “changing the conversation”, making ministers much more mindful of whether proposed actions are lawful. “It’s a bit like knowing that the bizzies are around if you fancy breaking into someone’s house,” he says, smilingly acknowledging the provocative analogy. “They are mindful of the possibility of consequence in ways that they were not previously.”

Maugham adds: “Privately, government lawyers tell us at the same time they’re sending us letters they are cheering for us to win. These aren’t people who are politically motivated, they just see the decline in the quality of governance in government and they see us pushing back hard.”

The Covid contracts controversy has clearly resonated with the public. This time last year, Maugham says, he was asking Good Law’s director of campaigns if the number of direct debit donors might reach 5,000 by the end of 2020, from fewer than 2,000 at the start of the year and against a target of 3,500. In fact it soared to 11,000, and now there are almost 20,000, he says.

With its headcount also growing – from one employee in January last year to an estimated 25 by the end of this year – Maugham is looking to the future and expanding beyond litigation.

He unexpectedly namechecks David Cameron – “the most unfashionable man in the country at the moment,” he says – as he outlines plans, not to follow the former prime minister into lobbying, but for a “big society”.

Stressing that he wants to work from the bottom up, rather than the top-down approach he says Cameron favoured, Maugham describes his ambition to foster legal structures, such as cooperatives and trade unions, to “help people improve the world around them, help them improve their communities”.

An example he gives is an alternative takeaway delivery service, which could be launched next year. “What we will probably do is trial in a particular community a structure that enables restaurants and drivers to set up a company that operates an app that serves that community and that doesn’t have these vampires in America sucking wealth out of that community,” he says.

If the government’s experience is anything to go by, the likes of Uber Eats and Deliveroo should probably be looking over their shoulders. Reflecting on this desire to empower others and his personal motivation, Maugham recalls his time in psychotherapy in his late 20s.

“I had a wonderful psychotherapist and I remember her saying to me: ‘But Jolyon, it’s such a waste for you to be unhappy, to live an unhappy life.’ That really resonated with me then and it really resonates with me now. That idea that we can find ways to respond to the world around us that will make us happy, we’re not passive participants in fate imposed on us by others, is really important … Without it our lives in a sense can feel wasted. I don’t want that for anyone.

“Although I am deeply cynical about what governments do, and what big money does … I’m profoundly optimistic about human nature. It perhaps feels ridiculously ambitious to think that the law might be able to do something about that, but it’s a hill I’m very happy to die on trying.”