The Supreme Court decision on the Article 50 Case

In November 2016, in a case brought by two private citizens, the High Court ruled that the government could not invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union without a parliamentary vote. This created a situation in which, potentially, the initiation of the maximum two-year process of negotiation leading to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU could have been delayed or even blocked.

Gina Miller The Woman who took on the government and won twice.

With its timetable for Brexit seemingly under threat, the government appealed to the Supreme Court. In January 2017, in the most high-profile case to reach the UK’s highest court, the Supreme Court upheld the judgement of the High Court. By a majority of eight to three (the first time that all 11 Supreme Court justices had sat together on a case), it determined that only Parliament had the right to make the decision of ‘momentous significance’ that will take the country out of the EU. Although, in the end, the anticipated damage to the Brexit process failed to materialise, the Supreme Court case was the most constitutionally significant in the UK for decades. This is because it reasserted the authority of Parliament and defined the boundaries of executive power. At the heart of the government’s argument in court was the claim that Article 50 could be invoked on the basis of the royal prerogative, which traditionally encompasses the conduct of foreign affairs including the signing of treaties. Ministers could therefore inform the European Council of the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU (initiating Article 50) by the use of Crown powers and without the need to consult Parliament.

The majority of justices nevertheless concluded that, over a matter of such profound importance, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty dictates that it is clearly authorised by Parliament. This was especially the case as withdrawal from the EU potentially puts at risk UK citizen’s rights that have been acquired through EC/EU membership. Attitudes to the High Court and Supreme Court rulings varied dramatically, however.

For some, the rulings were a resounding affirmation of the independence of the judiciary, which had both stood up to the government of the day and shown that the rule of law applies to ministers as well as private citizens. The judges, moreover, always insisted theirs was not a political decision. They were merely applying the law.

Nevertheless, the High Court case in particular attracted sometimes vitriolic criticism. Branded, by one national newspaper, ‘enemies of the people’ for having, supposedly, blocked the popular will as expressed in the referendum, the judges concerned were also condemned by some Brexiteers for unwarranted judicial activism (meddling in matters that should have been left to politicians) and for allowing alleged Europhile sympathies to affect their professional judgements