UK Government Loses Article 50 Brexit Appeal; Parliamentary Vote Needed

Alicia Nicholls

In its ruling made shortly after 9:30 GMT this morning, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court by a majority of 8 to 3 dismissed the Government’s appeal against a High Court decision that ruled that the Theresa May-led government must attain parliamentary consent before invoking the EU’s exit clause (Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union – Lisbon Treaty). A second issue which the court was called on to give its ruling upon was whether consultation with the devolved legislatures (e.g: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) was required before Article 50 was triggered.

In a judgment written by the 8 justices in majority and delivered by Lord Neuberger (President of the Supreme Court), the Court held that section 2 of the European Communities Act of 1972 Act did not allow the Government to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary authority.

The main reasons for the Court’s decision were, inter alia, as follows:

  • Section 2 of the European Communities Act makes EU law another source of UK law which can override domestic law and will remain so unless and until Parliament decides otherwise.
  • Once the UK leaves the EU and as such is no longer party to the EU treaties, not only will UK domestic law have changed but the rights enjoyed by UK residents granted through EU law will be affected.
  • Under the UK constitution, parliamentary legislation is required for any fundamental changes to the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Withdrawal from the EU treaties would be such a fundamental change as it would cut off the source of EU law. The justices reiterated that there is “a vital difference between variations in UK law resulting from changes in EU law, and variations in UK law resulting from withdrawal from the EU Treaties”.
  • Parliamentary authority is needed because withdrawal from the EU would remove some existing domestic rights of UK citizens.
  • In regards to the June 23rd 2016 referendum, the Court held that “its legal significance is determined by what Parliament included in the statute authorising it, and that statute simply provided for the referendum to be held without specifying the consequences.”

On the second issue under consideration, the Court unanimously held that the Government is not compelled to consult the devolved Parliaments.

The Court’s ruling is final and it was a decision which was much more expected than the results of the June 23rd Brexit result which precipitated it. It should be emphasised that this ruling was on the legal question of whether the Government could make the Article 50 notification using its prerogative powers and not on the political question of whether Brexit should occur. It is also one of several legal challenges which have been filed since the Brexit vote decision.

In brief remarks following the ruling, the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, said the Government will comply with the ruling. Even before the ruling, the Government had indicated that in case it lost the appeal, it would present a short Brexit bill to minimise the need for lengthy amendments and debate that would jeopardise Prime Minister May’s end of March timeline for making the Article 50 notification. Once the Article 50 notification is received, the UK and EU would have two years to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, with an extension only possible if agreed to. EU countries had indicated that they would not be engaging in any informal negotiations with the UK prior to the latter’s Article 50 notification.

In her long-awaited  speech last week in which she outlined her 12-point Brexit plan, Mrs. May confirmed that the UK would be pulling out of the single market (a move dubbed a “hard Brexit”) but also indicated that Parliament would be given the chance to vote on the final withdrawal deal negotiated with the EU.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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