Judicial review is a form of legal challenge that essentially means a court will audit the legality of decision-making by a public body in the UK.

The scope of judicial review is limited both in its availability and function: the role of the court is not to re-make the decision being challenged, or to inquire into the merits of that decision, but to conduct a review of the process by which the decision was reached in order to assess whether that decision was legally flawed. The process of bringing a claim is streamlined, and 'interested parties', who are neither applicants nor defendants, are often included in the proceedings when they have an interest in the outcome.

Which decisions can be judicially reviewed?

All public bodies and some other bodies exercising functions of a public law nature are susceptible to challenge by way of judicial review. The identity of the body in question or the source of its powers may determine if its decisions can be judicially reviewed, but so too may the nature of the act or decision being challenged. This means that the boundary between public bodies, whose decisions are generally subject to judicial review, and the private sector, whose decisions generally are not, is constantly evolving.

However, a public body’s decision cannot be challenged by judicial review if an alternative appeal route in the courts is available against the decision.

Commercial judicial review

Historically judicial review has been perceived primarily as a remedy for aggrieved individuals in immigration and planning cases. However in recent years it has been used more widely by commercial parties to challenge a variety of public law decisions including the decisions of regulatory authorities, the Financial Conduct Authority, Prudential Regulatory Authority and HM Revenue and Customs.

The decisions of city regulatory bodies, even those that are non-statutory, may be reviewable, but generally only where such bodies have been "woven into the fabric of public regulation" and all other remedies have been exhausted.

An individual or organisation must have sufficient interest, or “standing”, in the matter to which the judicial review relates in order to be bring a judicial review claim or be involved in it

For commercial bodies, decisions relating to the procurement of commercial contracts by public bodies may be challengeable by way of judicial review in some limited circumstances, but not generally when they could seek the same remedy by brining proceedings under procurement legislation.

Sufficient interest

An individual or organisation must have sufficient interest, or “standing”, in the matter to which the judicial review relates in order to be bring a judicial review claim or be involved in it.

Although the courts have avoided defining exactly what amounts to a sufficient interest, the general trend over recent years has been toward a liberalisation of this requirement, with the courts increasingly unwilling to dismiss a meritorious application for lack of standing. Pressure groups will generally be treated as having sufficient standing to bring a claim, providing there is no individual or other group with standing who has done so.

Timing and alternative remedies

An application for permission to apply for judicial review in England and Wales must be made “promptly” and in any event not later than three months from the date when grounds for the application first arose. The time limit is further reduced to six weeks for planning decisions and to one month in public procurement cases.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the requirement for an application to be brought "promptly" has been removed, so that the only requirement is for applications to be brought within three months. Again, shorter timeframes specified under statute apply in certain cases.

In all UK jurisdictions, there is an expectation that judicial review will be the remedy of last resort. The courts expect that a claimant will only commence proceedings after first making all efforts to resolve their disagreement with the public body. To this end, there is a protocol on pre-action correspondence before proceedings are initiated, and parties which fail to engage with this process, or to exhaust alternative methods of resolving their dispute, risk facing costs penalties, except where the court is satisfied that good reasons for not imposing a sanction exist.

Grounds for judicial review

Judicial review can be sought on the grounds that a decision is:

  • illegal - arises when a decision-maker breaches a legal requirement, misdirects itself in law, exercises a power wrongly, or purports to exercise a power that it does not have, which is known as acting 'ultra vires';
  • irrational - a decision may be challenged if it "is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it";
  • procedurally improper – a failure to observe statutory procedures or natural justice; or
  • in breach of legitimate expectation – when a public body has failed to act in line with an expectation that it has created by its own statements or acts.

A common application of these grounds is for judicial reviews to challenge the actions of public bodies as "illegal" under the Human Rights Act. The actions of the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may also be challenged by way of judicial review, by reference to their powers as set out in the devolution settlements.

Judicial review jurisdiction across the UK

Applications for judicial review in England and Wales may be made to the Administrative Court, which is a specialist court within the High Court. It sits in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester.

In Scotland, a petition for judicial review may be lodged in the Court of Session, which sits in Edinburgh.

In Northern Ireland, an application for judicial review may be lodged with the High Court, which sits in Belfast.

In each jurisdiction, the application faces a two-stage process. A claimant or applicant is first required to demonstrate that they have an arguable case in order to secure the permission or leave of the court to proceed to a full hearing of their application.


The question of remedies is often critical in judicial review proceedings, as it may determine not only whether it is worthwhile bringing a claim, but also whether permission will be granted to bring the claim.

One or more of six forms of final relief are available, and all are at the discretion of the court. These are:

  • a declaration;
  • an order quashing the decision in question (quashing order);
  • an order requiring the body under review to carry out its legal duties (mandatory order);
  • an order restraining the body under review from acting beyond its powers (prohibitory order) – this is rare as an injunction will usually suffice;
  • a stay or injunction;
  • damages.

Declarations and quashing orders are by far the most commonly granted remedies in judicial review. It is rare for the other remedies to be granted.

Following reforms in 2015, the Administrative Court in England and Wales cannot usually grant a remedy to the complainant where the outcome for them would not have been substantially different, if the conduct complained of had not occurred. However, the court retains a discretion to grant a remedy in these cases if appropriate "for reasons of exceptional public interest".

Further reforms introduced in 2022 mean that the Administrative Court in England and Wales also now has the option of suspending a quashing order in some cases, so that the public body is first given the opportunity to correct any failure that the court has identified. The court also has a discretion to limit the retrospective effects of the quashing order, so that things done by the public body before the quashing order was granted remain lawful.

For advice on judicial review in Scotland, please contact Jacqueline Harris. For advice on judicial review in Northern Ireland, please contact Deirdre Cormican.

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