19 Oct The Brexit Case and the Foreign Man on the Clapham Omnibus
[Mariam Kizilbash read for her LLM in Public International Law from UCL, has worked as a legal officer with charities in London and Islamabad on areas such as death-row offences, US drone strikes and large-scale corporate corruption. She now works now as a freelance writer.]
An Englishman of Bangladeshi origin, an Irishman, two Scotsmen resident in France, a Welshman and and a Gibraltarian, whose wife is Spanish, with family resident in Spain.
Miss Mountfield does not narrate these individuals as the start to a colourful joke, but as an introduction to the parties she is representing in her submissions in the ongoing case, The Queen on the Application of Santos & Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 2016, which concerns, as she points out, the nature of the EU citizenship rights which her clients enjoy and seek to enjoy.
The UK High Court through this case is presently considering whether ministers can invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the trigger for formal talks for the UK to leave the European Union, without Members of Parliament passing a new law which allows them to do so. It may be interesting especially for the people affected by Brexit, to try and make sense of what points were raised by the first hearing on Thursday.
While the UK Government feels a need to argue that the European Union will, by no means, be re-joined by the UK via a “back door” being unbolted through the bringing of this case against them, for the claimants, perhaps it is just about the pertinent legal point; only Parliament, they argue, can remove or reduce rights granted under law and Article 50 must have the consent of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
If the Government intends to give simple effect to the outcome of the EU referendum without this step, royal prerogative- a collection of executive powers held by the Crown-will be seen to trump parliamentary sovereignty, something which just cannot be legally done as the claimants are arguing.
Till now some of the claimants in this case have had their arguments heard. Some of the most cogent arguments I feel made by Lord Pannick on behalf of Ms. Gina Miller, the lead claimant in this case last Thursday were these:
Firstly, that notification of withdrawal from the EU via Article 50(2) of the Lisbon Treaty, has a “dramatic impact” in UK domestic law. This removes certain rights conferred by Parliament through the European Communities Act 1972. This is why these rights cannot be simply removed by a minister through his prerogative powers.
Secondly the EU Referendum Act 2015 itself, lacks a provision specifying what consequences, if any, should follow from the referendum result. The Act, said Lord Pannik, does not provide statutory authorization for the trigger notification. Neither does it suggest common law legal limits on the use of the prerogative are in any way limited by the Act.
Thirdly, the European Communities Act 1972, confers rights at international law which take effect it national law. These rights also take priority over inconsistent national law. For example the Van Gend & Loos case, pointed out the direct applicability of European community law which renders inapplicable any conflicting national law. This is a case about the limits of executive power where the Parliament has itself conferred those fundamental rights to the citizens of the country. Presumably this means, the Parliament must inevitably now have a say in the change or discarding of those rights.
Fourthly, the defendant cannot lawfully use the prerogative to make the notification under Article 50 because this has the intended consequence of depriving individuals of rights they currently enjoy under the 1972 Act as well as other legislation. The Case of Proclamations from 1610 narrated by Lord Pannick, amongst others, stated “The King, by his proclamations or other ways, cannot change any part of the common law or statute law or the customs of the realm.” A common law restriction on the use of prerogative powers can only be removed or altered by an express statutory provision. Lord Pannick stated: “The fact that Parliament has not addressed the common law use on the limits of prerogative powers simply means in my submission, and elementarily means, that Parliament is content for the common law limits to continue to be applied by the courts.” This argument may be a reverse form of the Lotus principle i.e. the Lotus principle would result in the thinking that it is permissible to assume there is executive prerogative to make the Brexit notification in absence of Parliament not expressly forbidding this, but here it is being said executive prerogative cannot be said to prevail over Parliamentary sovereignty because the latter has not expressly overruled the common law restriction of it doing so.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chambers on behalf of the claimant Santos, stated this case can simply be resolved by a direct application of parliamentary sovereignty- the “most fundamental legal doctrine of the British constitution.” No person or body is recognised by the law as having the right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament. Indeed, the Bill of Rights 1688 states: “The pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws by a legal authority without consent of Parliament, is illegal.” Chambers also reminded us of an interesting point. The philosopher, John Austin, in his lectures Province of Jurisprudence Determined, spoke about a “sovereign” as being the electorate; in this case, indeed can the “sovereign” be seen as majority of UK people who voted for Brexit in the 2015 Referendum instead of the UK Parliament? However Chambers goes on to say that the electorate may be the political sovereign and not the legal sovereign even in Austin’s terminology- the latter which remains the UK Parliament.
There have been a string of other legal cases of course in the past which have examined the dance between Parliament sovereignty and the opposing, executive prerogative. For instance, in Attorney General v De Keyser (1920), the House of Lords had to decide whether the Government could use a broad prerogative power to requisition property, rather than using a statutory power which allowed the same but also imported an obligation to pay compensation. Lord Parmoor said: “The growth of constitutional liberties has largely consisted in the reduction of the discretionary power of the executive, and in the extension of Parliamentary protection in favour of the subject, under a series of statutory enactments.” In R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union , the question was whether the prerogative could be used to establish a criminal injuries compensation scheme, given that such a scheme was already granted by statute while not yet in force. In that particular case Lord Browne-Wilkinson said “it would be most surprising if, at the present day, prerogative powers could be validly exercised by the executive so as to frustrate the will of Parliament.” In both cases the prerogative was curtailed. In BBC v Johns ( HM Inspector of Taxes) 1964, LJ Diplock had stated: “It is 350 years and a civil war too late for the Queen’s courts to broaden the prerogative…”
However, these cases by no means give a clear cut answer the Brexit conundrum. De Keyser established if legislation grants the Government a power to do something which the Government is also empowered to do under the prerogative, then the statutory power displaces the prerogative power if the statutory power is subject to conditions to which the prerogative power is not. The Fire Brigades Union case examined the manner in which the Government must act. The BBC case was more concerned with which institution can claim the prerogative and in doing so, be subject to judicial review.
In the Brexit case before us today however there is no conflict between statute and prerogative. Instead the tension is between the relationship with the European Union both the Parliament and the Executive individually hold and who can effectively now dissolve this relationship.
The Queen on the Application of Santos & Miller is also not the only “Brexit” case. The United Nations Commission might be hearing a petition by World War 2 veteran who argues that British citizens abroad were denied the right to vote in the referendum. Barrister Eskander may assist clients against individuals who lead the exit campaign on the interesting legal premise of “broken promises”. But Santos & Miller, which will surely go up to the Supreme Court may be the most decisive case by a UK court.
What arguments the defence presents next week will be beyond interesting. After all, we are far from the days where the execution of the royal Charles 1 was brought on by his altercations with Parliament. One also cannot forget Lord Steyn’s words in Jackson v Attorney General 2005 when he said: “Parliamentary sovereignty is no longer, if it ever was, absolute….”
The EU’s other 27 members have said negotiations about the terms of the UK’s exit cannot begin until Article 50 has been invoked. All eyes and ears will be on the case as it continues and the following Supreme Court appeal which will be leapfrogged to the end of this year. Already being hailed as the Queen Mary of all constitutional cases, this affair after an already controversial Brexit, questions the relationship between state organs, the result of a national referendum as well as the rippling effects on devolved governments- as arguments next week will reveal.