The judgment of the High Court of 3 November 2016 about the process that should be followed to enable the UK to leave the EU raises profound questions of constitutional significance for the United Kingdom.
At the centre of the case is the legal question of whether or not the government is entitled to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (the exit provision under EU law) solely by the exercise of the Crown’s prerogative powers (meaning that this is purely an executive decision which can be made by the Prime Minister) or whether reference must be had to Parliament (the democratically elected, legislative body).
High Court judges wearing their traditional red and white robes. Photo © FruitMonkey (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The government, in suggesting that it could use the prerogative to put in motion the procedure contained in Article 50, relied on the suggestion that the conduct of international relations, including the making and unmaking of treaties (as is the case here), is a matter that falls within the Crown’s prerogative powers.
The judges have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to ensure that the system of constitutional checks and balances is respected.
The Unwritten Constitution
Putting politics to one side for a moment, which is exactly what independent judicial authority is required to do, the legal question is tricky to resolve because the United Kingdom, unlike most states, does not have a written Constitution.
We have an unwritten system of constitutional arrangements, conventions, doctrines, some parliamentary legislation (like the European Communities Act of 1972) and case law (decisions of the judges). We do not therefore have an easily accessible text which sets out the rules of the constitutional game. Instead we are left to follow principles derived from an array of sources which have amassed over time with varying degrees of force and authority.
Resolving the thorny legal question at the heart of this dispute is exactly what the three judges of the High Court had to do in their landmark decision of 3 November.
At the heart of the legal problem lies the question of the extent of the Crown’s powers under the royal prerogative. The prerogative, which is a key aspect of the UK’s unwritten constitutional arrangements, refers to those residuary (arbitrary) powers which continue to remain with the Crown (or executive) despite the sovereignty of Parliament (which was confirmed in statute by the 1689 Bill of Rights following the Glorious Revolution).
The Crown (i.e government or executive power) cannot override legislation enacted by Parliament simply through its use of the prerogative.
The government argued that it could legitimately use the prerogative to give notice under Article 50 of its intention to begin the process of leaving the EU. This process would have the effect of taking away, or putting an end to, rights derived from EU law and incorporated into domestic UK law by the 1972 European Communities Act once the process was completed.
The Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the High Court judges made their ruling. Photo © sjiong (CC BY-SA 2.0)
What the judges of the High Court found, however, was that the government’s argument was not supported by the constitutional law of the UK. The most fundamental rule of the UK’s constitution is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty or legislative supremacy. This means that Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the country and that it can make or unmake any law it chooses.
The Crown (ie government or executive power) cannot override legislation enacted by Parliament simply through its use of the prerogative. That would be precisely the effect were the Crown to trigger Article 50 without reference to Parliament.
The completion of the Article 50 withdrawal process would result in the loss of rights for individuals. However, what Parliament has given (through the 1972 Act) can only be taken away by Parliament. It should escape no one that the desire of those supporting Brexit – that the UK parliament should have its sovereignty better respected – is precisely the outcome of the High Court’s decision.
Respect for the Rule of Law
Much of the media commentary surrounding the decision of the High Court has been about the lack of accountability of the judges in the face of the majority victory in the referendum for leaving the EU (51.9% against 48.1%).
Who are the judges to fly in the face of the wishes of the majority who voted for Brexit? The answer to this question is that the judges, far from being the ‘enemies of the people’ as the popular press would have us believe, are the independent authority whose task it is to uphold the rule of law in the midst of a political storm.
For centuries governments and executive authorities have attempted to usurp individual rights and freedoms through the use of regulatory powers.
The judges have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to ensure that the system of constitutional checks and balances is respected. The judges are there to provide independent judicial review of executive action to ensure precisely that the executive/Crown/Prime Minister act within their powers and do not act unlawfully or against the wishes of a sovereign Parliament. The judges are the guarantors of individual rights and liberties and it is absolutely their role to defend the Constitution, to defend the rule of law, against the arbitrary and unaccountable use of executive power.
For centuries governments and executive authorities have attempted to usurp individual rights and freedoms through the use of regulatory powers and judicial review of executive action is exactly the legal tool required in order to ensure that the use of executive power is not arbitrary, unlawful or ultra vires. This is precisely the role of the judges and the purpose of a Constitution (written or otherwise) and for that we should all be thankful.
How curious then that the Lord Chancellor and justice secretary, Liz Truss, should be so underwhelming in her endorsement of the principle of judicial independence and so lacklustre in her defence of the judiciary in the face of hostile media attacks. The Bar Council of England and Wales has lost no time in pointing out the absence of leadership shown by the Lord Chancellor and has rightly expressed concern about the rule of law being undermined in the name of press freedom.
Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Liz Truss was criticised for her lukewarm response to criticism of the judiciary following the ruling of 3 November. Photo © Policy Exchange (CC BY 2.0)
Not surprisingly, the government is appealing against the judgment of the High Court with a decision expected in December. This will enable the Justices of the Supreme Court (exceptionally all of them) to consider the strength of legal argument on both sides and a further, ironic, twist in the story could then be a preliminary reference to the EU’s Court of Justice in Luxembourg for its interpretation on the matter.
What is clear is that this profoundly important judgment of the High Court will resonate for years to come and that resonance comes not so much from the political consequences of the decision, but from its statement about the boundaries and the limits of executive power.
Professor Susan Millns is Head of the Department of Law in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex.