Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘rule of law

Determining the limits of Executive Power: the Miller case

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There is no doubt that 24 January 2017 was a big day for the Supreme Court. That was the date on which 11 Justices handed down their decision in R (on the application of Miller and another)  v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5.
At issue was a fundamental constitutional question: could the decision of the UK to exit the European Union be implemented by the Government itself exercising executive power deriving from the Royal Prerogative, or did the process have to be authorised by Parliament passing a Bill which would give the Government the power to start the exit process.
The Government argued – in outline – that the power of the UK Government to enter into international treaty obligations is something that is exercised by exercise of prerogative powers. Thus, equally the Government argued – the power to disengage from treaty obligations could be done by exercise of those same prerogative powers.
Those who challenged the Government’s position argued that because accessing the EU had been accompanied by the enactment of the European Communities Act 1972, (which gave domestic effect to the UK’s obligations under the then existing EU Treaties, together with subsequent statutes, which gave effect to and related to later EU Treaties, and the European Union Referendum Act 2015) the Act of 1972 had created legal rights and obligations in our domestic law. Owing to the well-established rule that prerogative powers may not extend to acts which result in a change to UK domestic law, and withdrawal from the EU Treaties would change domestic law, the Government cannot serve a Notice unless first authorised to do so by an Act of Parliament.
By a majority of 8 – 3, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court that the process of starting Brexit could not be started by the exercise of the prerogative, but must be authorised by an Act of Parliament.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the 2016 referendum was an event of great political significance. However, its legal significance had to 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.
The change in the law required to implement the referendum’s outcome must be made in the only way permitted by the UK constitution, namely by legislation.
There has been a great deal of comment – much of it vitriolic and ill-informed – on the decisions of the courts. Those who argued in favour of the Government appeared to have forgotten some basic constitutional principles.
  • The Sovereignty of Parliament means that Parliament ( not the Executive) has the power to make and unmake laws (indeed that was a key argument of the case for Brexit – that the UK had ceded too much law making power from the UK Parliament to the EU).
  • The Separation of Powers means that there are checks and balances in our constitutional settlement, which implies that the judiciary must have the independence to reach decisions that the Government of the day may not like.

It can be argued that the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor was too slow to acknowledge her obligations under section 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary – certainly in the immediate aftermath of the initial High Court decision in which considerable abuse was heaped upon the judges in the Press. Those who accused the judges of ‘being out of touch’ showed that they had no understanding of what the role of the judges is and should be in a parliamentary democracy.

Of course, those in power who find that they are prevented from doing what they would like may be expected to rail against those who have put barriers in their way – recent events in the USA bear witness to this proposition. But it should be remembered that without checks and balances, government leaders may well be tempted to take more and more power to themselves, with potentially extremely serious consequences for the people they seek to govern.

One further question that this case provokes is whether the current mix of constitutional principle – the precise limits of which are unclear – and law is the mot appropriate basis on which the Constitution of the UK should be founded. Is one implication of the Miller case that the time has now come for the UK to adopt a written constitution?

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Written by lwtmp

February 27, 2017 at 10:08 am

Setting limits to the exercise of prerogative powers: R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

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One of the most important legal challenges to the exercise of prerogative power has recently been made in the case of  R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. This is the case that challenged the Government’s view that it could trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union without the necessity for a vote in Parliament. This is a case of very considerable constitutional importance. I provide here links to a  summary of the case, and  to the whole judgement.

The decision of the Administrative Court is being appealed go the Supreme Court. The outcome of that hearing is expected early in 2017.

A summary of the decision can be found by clicking on the following link:

 

The full judgement is at

While it was accepted that the Government can use its prerogative power to enter international treaties, in the case of the European Union, the relationship between the UK and the EU was underpinned by the European Communities Act 1972, which had been enacted by the UK Parliament. The judges accepted that, if the UK were to exit the EU, this would inevitably result in rights and obligations brought into the UK’s domestic law by the Act of 1972 being altered.

The judges held that the Sovereignty of Parliament was the most important  principle in the UK’s constitutional arrangements. While the Parliament could make or unmake any law, it was not permissible to use prerogative powers to change law enacted by Parliament. Thus, in the current situation, it was not permissible to use  prerogative power to trigger the start of the process of leaving the EU.

Sections of the UK Press saw this decision as undermining the will of the people (as expressed in the result of the referendum on leaving the EU). However, a more sensible view is that in this decision the Court was deciding  that the fundamental principle of the Sovereignty of Parliament should be upheld and that it was the proper function of the Court – which is independent of Government – to rule that in these circumstances the Sovereignty of Parliament was not to be undermined by the use of prerogative power.

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

November 6, 2016 at 8:21 am