UK civil servants told to ignore European court judges

LONDON — U.K. civil servants have been told to defer to ministers when it comes to ignoring so-called pajama injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The new direction came in letters published by senior officials in the Cabinet Office and Home Office three hours before Rishi Sunak was set to face a crunch vote on his flagship Rwanda asylum plan. After the Supreme Court blocked his scheme — which would permanently send asylum-seekers to Rwanda from Britain — the U.K. prime minister introduced emergency legislation aimed at bypassing the court’s concerns. But a raft of Conservative rebels are worried his plans don’t go far enough.

In an effort to bring some of those rebels back onside, Sunak has toughened his language on “pajama injunctions” — which are Rule 39 orders issued by the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg court issued the emergency blocking power to thwart a flight to Rwanda in 2022 a matter of hours before it was due to depart.

Now civil servants have been issued new guidance which indicates that decisions “in respect of the U.K.’s international obligations are a matter for ministers” and that civil servants should refer any ECHR orders to ministers for a decision.

It adds that if a minister decides not to comply with a Rule 39 indication, “it is the responsibility of civil servants — operating under the Civil Service Code — to implement that decision.” This is aimed at ensuring the U.K. government can, if necessary, ignore any future injunctions from the Strasbourg court.

The decision has angered some Whitehall-representing bodies, which worry that civil servants who choose to ignore international legal judgments due to their orders could still be breaching the law.

“This isn’t about whether civil servants support Rwanda or not,” Dave Penman, head of the FDA union for civil servants, told the London Playbook PM newsletter. “It’s about whether the U.K. can ignore its international legal obligations. A wheeze to get around it doesn’t change the substance.”