Brexit, Article 50 and the Supreme Court

On Monday some of the country’s most senior lawyers will gather in the Supreme Court and appear before the country’s 11 most senior judges.  The case calling before the Supreme Court is the appeal by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union against the decision of the Divisional Court in Miller v The Secretary of State for the European Union.  The case has come to be known as “the Article 50 case” and “the Brexit case” by many.  So much has been written on the subject already and by people who are far more expert than me; however, I thought I would throw my twopence in anyway.  In this post I will not express any view as to the merits of the Secretary of State’s case, nor of the Respondent’s case nor that of the interveners and other interested parties.

There has been a lot of sensationalist nonsense published and said about this case.  The issue before the Court is a very narrow point of law; however, it is not a difficult point of law to understand.  It is also an extremely important point of law and the narrowness and simplicity of it should not take anything away from its importance.  The issue for the court is whether the Secretary of State has a prerogative power to trigger Article 50.  The case is not about whether the UK can leave the EU nor is it about whether the UK should leave the EU.  The case is about the process of leaving the EU.

During the Referendum the Government said that it will give effect to the result of the referendum.  The result of the referendum was that those who voted to leave the EU outnumbered those who voted to remain.  It was a narrow result (despite what some might say), but the referendum was held on a simple majority basis.  One side only needed to win by one vote to win the referendum.  The result of this case does not affect the Government’s pledge to give effect to the result of the referendum; it is about how the Government gives effect to the result of the referendum.  It is a question of process and procedure.

In our democracy, the Executive (which is HM’s Government) gets its power primarily from two sources.  The first is from prerogative powers.  These are the remnants of the Monarch’s absolute power and authority.  These prerogative powers have, over the course of centuries, become constrained through the actions of Parliament.  In our system, Parliament is supreme; Parliament is sovereign and it can act to constrain the power of the Executive if it so elects.

The second source from which the Executive derives its power is from Parliament.  Through legislation, Parliament delegates some of its authority to the Executive.  This is where the power of the Government to make secondary legislation comes from.  This delegated authority is rarely absolute.  In the primary legislation delegating the authority (“the enabling legislation”), Parliament will set out the boundaries of the Executive’s authority.  That is how the courts are able to over-turn secondary legislation on social security benefits (for example) – it is because the secondary legislation steps beyond the powers delegated to Ministers by Parliament.  Ministers must either go back to Parliament to get the power needed to do what it is that they wanted to do or to get Parliament to enact the scheme that the Executive wants to enact.

This is in essence the separation of powers.  It is important that in any democracy that the power is shared between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.  Parliament is sovereign and is kept accountable by the electorate.  We do not send delegates to Parliament, but rather we send representatives.  What this means is that for the time our MP is sitting in Parliament we ask them to take decisions on our behalf.  As part of the process of an MP deciding how they are going to vote on a particular issue, they will inevitably consider the views of their constituents; however, their constituents cannot instruct the MP to vote in a specific way.  What the electorate can do if they are unhappy with the decisions that their representative takes on their behalf, is to elect a different representative to send to Parliament at the next election.

That brings us onto the question of referendums and their legal status.  As has already been discussed, Parliament is both supreme and sovereign in our democratic system.  It cannot be instructed by the electorate to act in a particular way; therefore, the referendum is simply advice to Parliament and to the Executive.  It would have been entirely possible for the face of the referendum legislation to have included the effect of the result.  The Act could have said that if the result was in favour of leave, that the Secretary of State shall give notice to the European Union of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union.  Such a step would have given the Secretary of State a clear statutory power to trigger Article 50; there could have been no litigation as to whether the Secretary of State had the power to trigger Article 50 or not.  This is what happened with the AV referendum in 2011; Parliament set out within the legislation the effect of a “yes” vote and the effect of a “no” vote.  In this case, Parliament did not do that and so there is no clear statutory power; thus the Government needs to try and rely on the prerogative power.

The effect that all of this has on the appeal in the Supreme Court next week is that the Court is determining the scope of the Executive’s power.  As already discussed, the Executive is subordinate to Parliament.  Government policy is not law.  The Government’s policy on the European Union is to leave the European Union.  It can only give effect to that policy within the constraints of its power.  If it doesn’t have the necessary power then it needs to get it from Parliament.

There have been complaints about the legal system treating the referendum vote as “a footnote”; in terms of the law that is all it is.  It is irrelevant for determining the legal question before the Court.  The prerogative power is, as discussed above, the remnants of the Monarch’s absolute authority.  If the prerogative gives the Executive the power to leave the European Union, then that would hold true irrespective of the result of the referendum (and even irrespective of whether there was a referendum at all).  What it would mean is that the Government could trigger Article 50 and bring the UK out of the European Union had the country expressed a view to remain in the European Union; it could even have done so without a referendum at all.  The prerogative is not about whether the Government has a popular mandate, or an instruction from the electorate to do something.  The prerogative is absolute, un-checked power in the hands of the 20 or so people who are members of the Cabinet to do as they please.  That, if you ask me, is the affront to democracy (but is really outside of the scope of this blog post).  So, because the prerogative is the absolute power of the Executive, the fact that there has been a referendum and the fact that the result of that referendum was an expression of a wish to leave the EU is an irrelevance for the court.

The Courts are there to decide questions of law.  The question as to whether the UK leaves the EU is a political one.  If the Supreme Court upholds the Divisional Court’s decision, the question of what Parliament will do is a political one also.  The Court cannot consider whether the UK should leave the EU, nor can it speculate as to how Parliament might act on the question.  It cannot, when deciding the case, pay any attention to how Parliament might act.  If you are fearful that Parliament might try to block Brexit then that is a matter to take up with your MP, not the Justices of the Supreme Court.

So, in short, the question before the Court is simply does the Secretary of State have the power to trigger Article 50 deriving from the prerogative powers.  If the answer to that is no, then it will be down to Parliament to give the Secretary of State that power.  How that plays out is a purely political matter.  The Supreme Court deciding that the Secretary of State does not have the power to trigger Article 50 says nothing to those voted vote leave or remain; it does not nullify or void the result (or anything close to that).  Conflating the political and legal issues is disingenuous and extremely dangerous.

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