What the High Court did not do today about Tony Blair and war crimes

31st July 2017

You will read – on social media and elsewhere – that today the High Court decided to not prosecute Tony Blair (and others) for war crimes.

The High Court did not make that decision.

First, the High Court was not being asked to make a decision on whether Blair should be prosecuted.  That would be a decision for a criminal court – to permit a private prosecution.

The decision today was about whether a decision not to permit such a prosecution was lawfully open to the criminal court.  The High Court held that it was not open to a criminal court to give that permission.  So: one step away from a decision to allow any prosecution.

Second, the High Court was bound by a 2006 decision of the House of Lords (the predecessor to the current Supreme Court).  So: it was in 2006 that the decision was made that the waging of aggressive war was not a domestic crime, and not today.  All the High Court did today was follow a decision more than ten years’ old.

Today the High Court made neither a decision to not prosecute for war crimes nor new law.  The High Court instead said somebody else could not make the decision, and did so by applying old law.

Read the judgment for yourself.

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A mandate can be either democratic or irreversible, but it cannot be both – an argument

31st July 2017

Over at the FT the other day I did a post about mandates and sovereignty.  Many people seemed to find the points in it interesting, and so (outside of the paywall) I will set out here in more detail the argument I made there about mandates.

The proposition I advance is in essence:

a mandate can be either democratic or irreversible, but it cannot be both.

The argument in support of this proposition goes as follows:

1.  To say a referendum result provides a mandate for an issue once and for all is to say it is irreversible.

2.  The position in (1) contrasts with mandates from general elections.  Usually in UK politics, the result of a general election does not mandate any MP to vote for anything.  The only real constitutional effect of a mandate from a general elections is that, by convention, any mandated measure cannot be blocked or delayed by the House of Lords (the “Salisbury doctrine”).

(Something is said to be mandated from a general election if it is set out in the manifesto of a party which obtains an overall majority.)

3. Following from (2): (a) opposition MPs can vote against measures in the winning party’s manifesto, (b) no government is obliged to follow its own manifesto (and often does not), and (c) in certain circumstances, a government can abandon and reverse policies where there is a mandate without waiting for a general election.

(A classic illustration of (c) is the poll tax, for which a Conservative government had a detailed mandate from the 1987 general election. Few sensible people, if any, would have argued that the Tories were bound to keep this tax in 1990 because of “democracy” when it came to be seen widely as wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.)

4.  Following from (2) and (3), mandates in UK politics are usually reversible, if they are followed at all.

5.  In any case, anything “mandated” by a general election result will always (and logically) be reversible at another election.

(In the case of (3)(c), there would not even be the wait for a general election.  For example, nobody in 1990 was saying about the poll tax: “let’s wait for the next general election for a mandate for something else”.  The policy was rightly ditched mid-parliament.)

6.  Following from (2), (3), (4) and (5) if a policy is (a) wrong in principle and (b) unworkable in practice then it is difficult to see how any perceived mandate from a general election can override that.

7.  Mandates also can come from referendums. The questions to now ask are: What should be the position with mandates from referendums? Should such mandates have an irreversible quality which a mandate from a general election does not?  And if it has an irreversible quality, would such a mandate still be “democratic”?

8.  In respect of whether such a mandate would be democratic, one can apply the famous tests of Tony Benn.  He suggested five tests for anyone with power: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?

9.  It is the last one that is problematic about referendum results, and prompts the following questions: How do you reverse a referendum result? Can an electorate at one point in time bind all future electorates in a way that no parliament could ever do?  Why should a majority at point A have more inherent power than an electorate at point B? These questions all point to one plausible answer: to say a referendum result is mandatory for all time and not reversible in any circumstances is to rob future electorates of their power.

(As a side note, no Brexiteer – rightly – seems to believe that the UK was bound for all time by the 1975 referendum result.)

10.  If the position at (9) is valid, then for a referendum mandate to be democratic, it must be capable of being revisited (either to affirm it or reverse it), else it cannot be democratic.  One electorate would have dictated a measure to all future electorates.

11.  If the position at (10) is valid, this is not to suggest a second referendum (see my post here – my view is that any such decision in a parliamentary democracy should be made, well, by parliament).  Instead, if the position at (10) is valid then it means that referendum results (or anything else) should not be given the status of an absolute mandate in a democracy, for to do so would thereafter render that polity as undemocratic.  This is because something will have been done that cannot be undone, whether by voters directly or through parliament.

12.  And so on the basis of the positions above, a mandate – whether by means of a general election or a referendum – can be either democratic or irreversible, but it cannot be both.

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Brexit and the new British Constitution

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15th March 2017

The set out of a textbook on the ‘British Constitution’ used to be straightforward.

(And yes, the British do have a constitution, it just is not codified.  There is a descriptive answer to the question: how is Britain constituted?)

After the various chapters on the executive, legislature, judiciary, local government, nationalised industries, the police, and so on, there would perhaps be a short chapter on Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Wales would have an index entry which said ‘for Wales, see Scotland and Northern Ireland‘.

In other words: the three other component states of the United Kingdom were not taken seriously in constitutional terms. They were, at least for many in England, an afterthought.

This did not stop English politicians invoking ‘British’ as it suited them.  English conservative politicians were fond in particular of calling for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ without a second thought as to the word ‘British’ (or indeed to the word ‘rights’).

This was always misconceived.  Even in the times of old textbooks, the constitution of the United Kingdom was not just that of a greater England, notwithstanding the unifying constitutional doctrines of the powers of the Crown and the sovereignty of parliament.  Scotland, for example, has its own legal system and jurisidiction.  As does Northern Ireland.

(There is no such thing as ‘British law’.  Some laws cover all the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, but ultimately there are the laws of England and Wales, of Scotland, and of Northern Ireland.  The United Kingdom has always been a form of federation.)

The effect of modern devolution has made the old textbook approach redundant compeletely.

Chapters on Scotland, on Northern Ireland, and even on Wales, need to be towards the start of any constitutional textbook, and not towards the end.

The fact there was never a ‘British Bill of Rights’ (despite ten years of Tory trying) was in large part because it was impossible to repeal the Human Rights Act and enact a replacement in the face of opposition of the devolved powers.  (And because in Northern Ireland, the enforceabilty of the ECHR was written into the Good Friday Agreement.)

A fogey may contend that the sovereignty of parliament still prevails, and that the Westminster parliament may legislate as it wishes.  But that is constitutional theory and not practice.  Such an approach now would not only be arrogant but (as with the aborted ‘British Bill of Rights’) also futile.

Brexit takes place in the constitutional context of modern devolution.  This means that there will be checks and balances in effect even if not in neat constitutional principle.  I have set out over at the Financial Times how the Scottish First Minister has crafted a check and balance out of constitutional thin air: and it has had areal effect in causing a postponement of the Article 50 announcement which was supposed to have been made yesterday.

A constitution regulates what any government can get away with.

In this way, whether the cause of the disappointment is the legislature, the judiciary, or the devolved administrations, the noise of a ‘disappointed’ minister is the sound of a working constitution.

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Brexit Diary – one hurdle surmounted, but another gets more awkward

14th March 2017

Yesterday the Bill to enable the Prime Minister to make the Article 50 notification passed both Houses of Parliament.  The parliamentary page for it is here.

The Bill should soon have royal assent, if it has not already.  (Contrary to urban myth, royal assent is not given by the monarch personally, but on their behalf.)

The Bill has not been amended from the version first presented by the government.  In essence, the Bill places the government in the position it was in before the High Court ruled that it would be unlawful for the notification to be made without parliamentary approval.

(My Jack of Kent post yesterday on MPs as ‘delegates’ not ‘representatives’ is here.)

But as that obstacle to Brexit falls away, another very much came into view yesterday – not an obstacle as such to Brexit but to a ‘hard Brexit’.  This, of course, was because of the the speech of the Scottish First Minister.

This can be read here.  The First Minister announced that there will be an independence referendum when the Brexit proposals become clear.

The (intended) effect of this speech is to place UK government policy on a wire.  If the outcome of Brexit is too ‘hard’ then there will be an independence referendum for Scotland which may support independence.

(My piece on the constitutional context of the speech is at the FT.)

The one immediate effect of the speech is that the buzz about an Article 50 notification being sent this week has been quashed – the notification will now be sent by the end of this month.

Brexit continues to be fascinating.

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Are MPs now delegates rather than representatives?


13th March 2017

One of the stock answers which a new Member of Parliament learns is that they are representatives not delegates.

Certain MPs will go further and invoke solemnly the words of Edmund Burke in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol (1774):

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

There is sense in this approach.

Electors can get rid of MPs at elections.  MPs can in the meantime vote as they wish.  There is thereby a pressure valve between the voters and the matters before a legislature.

If a MP goes against what his or her voters want then a new MP can be elected at the next election.

This valve is a feature of the UK’s “parliamentary democracy”.

And, in turn, “parliamentary democracy” is a principle of the (uncodified) British constitution.

Against this principle is now this relentless and alien doctrine of the referendum mandate.

The 2016 referendum on EU membership was not legally binding: MPs could have legislated for this but chose not to do so.  MPs instead chose for the Brexit referendum to have advisory power.

But it is now being treated by many MPs as having total power: things are being done in the name of the “mandate”.

Today in the House of Commons there were two votes on sensible amendments to the Article 50 notification bill.  These amendments had been inserted by the House of Lords.  But they were voted down by the majority for no good reason.

Perhaps there was a good reason which was not easy to detect.  Perhaps.

But it seems to me that many MPs who vote on Brexit are betraying – instead of serving – their constituents, when they sacrifice their judgment to their constituents.

Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe “parliamentary democracy” is better circumvented than observed.

That is a matter of opinion.

But is also a matter of principle: either “parliamentary democracy” is taken seriously as a principle or it is not.

And when a MP next reaches in his or her mind for the stock Burkean response to being asked about why they are not voting as their constituents would prefer on a particular issue, they will find the words are empty.

On Brexit, many MPs are voting as – and behaving like – delegates not representatives.

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Brexit Diary: recent news on the “high politics” of Brexit in Westminster and Whitehall

(These Brexit Diary posts collect recent news and commentary.)

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Today’s Brexit diary contains recent news on the “high politics” of Westminster and Whitehall.

Brexit is not inevitable, says former civil service chief, Guardian, 27 August 2016

Few things are inevitable in human affairs, and this was a statement of the obvious by O’Donnell.  This observation, however, was useful as a peg to hang the civil service stories below.

The following two links are also not really news: the government’s long-standing position is that Article 50 can be triggered without a parliamentary vote.  This contention will be tested by the High Court in October, with a likely Supreme COurt hearing in December.

Theresa May will trigger Brexit negotiations without Commons vote Telegraph 27 August 2016

Theresa May ‘acting like Tudor monarch’ by denying MPs a Brexit vote Guardian 28 August 2016

The following links are news.  What is significant is that there is still no settled government position on the shape of Brexit.  There can be no surprise that in the absence of such a policy, splits are emerging.

Theresa May calls Brexit meeting amid reports of single market split Guardian, 28 August 2016

Chancellor blamed as cabinet splits over single market Sunday Times, 28 August 2016

The prime minister tells civil servants to “get on” with implementing a policy which does not exist yet:

Theresa May tells pro-EU civil servants to get on with the job of delivering Brexit Telegraph 28 August 2016

The prime minister also tells her cabinet to come up with a Brexit policy:

Theresa May, the Brexit enforcer, orders her Cabinet ministers to come up with blueprint for EU exit Telegraph 28 August 2016

And already the civil service (on whom the success of Brexit will depend) are being attacked for not implementing a policy which does not exist yet:

Whitehall must not try to block Brexit Telegraph, 28 August 2016

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Cavaliers and Roundheads: four thoughts about the Article 50 litigation

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11th July 2016

There are three potential cases against the government on Article 50, demanding that the ultimate decision on Brexit be made by parliament and not the prime minister under the royal prerogative.

Two of these cases (the Mishcon de Reya and Dos Santos cases) are described in my post here, and the third (the Bindmans case) is set out at Jolyon Maugham’s blog – including a detailed letter which should be read in full.

Of the three:

– the Mishcon de Reya case is the most well-known (thanks to a savvy press release);

– the Dos Santos case the one most progressed (with a claim form and a date of 19 July 2016 for a preliminary hearing), and

– the Bindmans case the one where most information is in the public domain.

It is disappointing that in such potentially far-reaching public interest cases, there is so far little information in public domain on two of the potential claims.

That said, there are perhaps four general points worth making.

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First: the government will not want to litigate these cases.

This is for two reasons.

One is obvious: the government will not want to lose a case on this particular issue.

The other is more subtle: the royal prerogative is a valuable tool for the executive.  The fiction is that it is exercised on behalf of the crown by her majesty’s ministers. The reality is that it gives ministers legal powers without any visible means of legal support.

The possibility of having an adverse decision on the scope of the royal prerogative will make government lawyers highly nervous – especially with, say, David Pannick (the barrister on the Mischcon de Reya case) on the other side. Who knows what the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court could rule… (government lawyers would be shuddering at this point).

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Which leads us to the second thought: these cases may not get to trial.

In two of the case, this is a trite observation: there does not even seem to be a formal “letter before action,” let alone an actual claim.

But the government really will not want these claims to progress, and so the government will want to get rid of them if they can.  This may be by successfully opposing the claims at the preliminary permission stage – or it may be that the government offers an apparent concession, such as a promise that there will be a parliamentary vote before an Article 50 notification – formally distinct but effectively connected.  I deal more with this possibility at my FT post today.

What I think the government may say that there will be a vote to repeal (or amend) the relevant EU legislation, but any repeal (or amendment) will then be suspended pending the outcome of the Brexit process.  If the vote is lost, however, the Article 50 notification cannot proceed.  It would be giving the Article 50 decision to parliament in all but legal form, whilst preserving the precious royal prerogative.

If faced with such a concession, the courts may be minded to leave the case alone.

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Which brings us to the third thought: the courts will not be eager to decide this case.

This is not because the case lacks inherent interest: members of the legal profession have been considering these questions since law school, and the respective powers of the crown and parliament was probably the first topic they wrote an essay on.  Judges would love to discuss this case in a seminar or at their bench table.

But they will not want to decide this one in court unless they have to.  This is for two reasons.

First, it is ultimately a political question which should be resolved by parliament. It may well be that the question can be framed in a legal(istic) way about the correct construction of Article 50 and what “constitutional requirements” are or are not. But the judges will not want to be dragged in easily into a political dispute about the outcome of a popular referendum.

Second, the remedies sought in these cases appear to be “discretionary” remedies – such as declarations or injunctions.   A discretionary remedy – unlike the award of damages in a contract or tort claim – is not something a claimant can demand as of right. Even if a claimant can make out their case, the court can still decline to grant the remedy if it serves no useful purpose or is futile.

So even if the case is heard, it is not certain the court will then do anything.

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Which leads to the final point: there is no clear legal outcome to the claims.

Nobody knows for certain what the courts would decide, even if the courts are minded to hear the case and grant a remedy.

Views differ. On the “parliamentarian” side you have Pannick and other distinguished constitutional lawyers, and on the (forgive me) “cavalier” side you have Professor Mark Elliott, perhaps the UK’s leading public law academic and others. These people disagree fundamentally and in good faith (and in good humour).

It is not a “given” that the parliamentarians will win, even with crowd-funding and so on.  The fact that government lawyers will want to head off the claim can be explained by prudence and not resignation.

(For what it is worth, I think both the parliamentarians and cavaliers are correct, and Article 50(1) is wide enough to cover both the exercise of the prerogative and a parliamentary Act as a decision).

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So in summary: you have cases the government wants to close down, cases which the courts will hear and decide only if they have to, cases which may not lead to any decision or remedy, and cases where it cannot be predicted which side is most likely to win.

Whatever happens will, however, be fascinating for anyone interested in law and policy.

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Parliament, Article 50, and the Leave Paradox

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4th July 2016

The news that there may be a legal case about whether any Article 50(1) decision has to be by Act of Parliament perhaps creates a paradox for the Leave side.

The paradox can be characterised as follows:

Leave Supporter: “We want our own Parliament to be sovereign on matters to do with the EU!”

Response: “Like on whether to Leave then?”

Leave Supporter: “No.”

Those who campaigned Leave so as to uphold Parliamentary Sovereignty are now unhappy at prospect of Parliament being sovereign about whether to Leave.

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The Mishcon de Reya legal challenge on Article 50 – some thoughts

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3rd July 2016

News has just broken of an Article 50 legal challenge being proposed by the well-known London law firm Mishcon de Reya.

The press release is here.

Here are some initial thoughts.

First, it is not disclosed who the potential claimants are.

Given that the claim goes to a fairly fundamental topic of public policy, it is rather odd that is not disclosed who is proposing to bring the claim.  The press release mentions there has already been correspondence with the government lawyers – so presumably the potential claimants are known to the government.

Second, it is not clear what has actually been done.

“Legal steps have been taken” could mean anything from mere  pre-action correspondence, to a formal Letter Before Action, to the issue of a formal claim. “Legal steps” has no particular meaning at law – it is a press-releasy sort of phrase.

Third, it is not clear what remedy is being sought.

A good guess that it is for a “Declaration” on what Article 50(1) requires as a matter of English (and Welsh) law. A “Declaration” is a discretionary remedy of the courts (you are not entitled to one just because you ask for one) when the correct legal position on something which needs to be established.

(Presumably there will also have to be similar actions in Scotland and Northern Ireland too – it cannot just be assume that all UK jurisdictions will follow what a London court says on this.)

I cannot think what other remedy the claimants could be seeking – for example, a court would not lightly injunct the government from making a notification, and there is no decision for the courts to quash.

Fourth, two of the barristers mentioned as having been instructed have recently published articles on why an Act of Parliament is required for the purposes of Article 50(1).

David Pannick’s article was in The Times,  and Tom Hickman co-authored this at the UK Constitutional Law Association site.

Fifth, it will be interesting what the government’s response will be.

If the government says in response that an Act of Parliament is what will be required then the litigation will go no further.

Sixth, if the action proceeds, then there is the prospect (if permission is granted to bring the claim as there is a permission stage before a substantive stage in judicial review cases) of a public hearing – with the incomparable Pannick as one of the advocates – and then a reasoned decision on what is required by Article 50(1).  It may even go quickly to the Supreme Court.

This would be a fascinating case to say the least for anyone interested in law and policy.

Last, if the government concedes there has to be an Act (or if – dramatically – the courts declare that an Act is required) then Brexit becomes even less likely.

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Does Article 50 require an Act of Parliament? A brief thought-experiment.

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3rd July 2016

Here is a question: would a decision by the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union require an Act of Parliament?

On this question, one week or so after the referendum vote for Leave, it may be fairly said that “views differ”.  Some constitutional lawyers say one thing, others say the other.

In favour of an Act of Parliament being the only way, see David Pannick in The Times, Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King on the UK Constitutional Law Association site, and Adam Tucker at the same site.

In favour of it being just one means among others, see Carl Gardner at Head of Legal and Mark Elliott at Public Law for Everyone.

When the views of experts differ it is a temptation to just shrug with despair.

Nobody would blame you.

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This post sets out a contention – based on a thought-experiment – that an Act would not be required.

An Act could be a means of the decision being made – on that point views do not differ – but it is not the only way.

What follows is that contention – but please note this post is a (minor) contribution on one side of a debate rather than an (attempt at) objective exposition of an area of controversy.

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First, let’s remind ourselves of the relevant parts of the first two paragraphs of Article 50 (I have omitted some not relevant text):

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention.

The key question is what is a “decision” in accordance with the UK’s “own constitutional requirements”.

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Second, let’s consider a thought-experiment based on a counterfactual situation.

Think back to last Friday, the day the result of the referendum came in.

Consider now the following facts:

– a national referendum had taken place in accordance with a statute passed for the sole purpose of that referendum;

–  33,577,342 voters voted in that referendum (72% of the electorate);

– there was a clear (if narrow) vote in favour of Leave;

– the Prime Minister had said expressly at the beginning of the referendum campaign that “If the British people vote to leave there is only one way to bring that about – and that is to trigger Article 50 of the Treaties and begin the process of exit. And the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away”; and

– the government had expressly stated during the campaign “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”.

Taking these five facts, imagine now the Prime Minister (by himself or after consulting with Cabinet) taking the decision (or purporting to take that decision) on that Friday that the UK had decided to withdraw from the European Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

There had been a special referendum passed by Parliament for the purpose, there had been a heavy turn-out and a decisive result in the vote in that referendum, and the government had stated clearly that the decision would be implemented and the Article 50 straight away.

Imagine now the Prime Minister that same Friday had been minded to notify the European Council of such a (purported) decision.

What would be the legal position if some wily litigant- lets call her Ms Haddock – had been quick enough to make a legal challenge that same day?

I cannot see how the courts would have seen the claim as justiciable: there had been a special referendum with a clear result on a high turn-out and the government had moved to implement the decision straight-away as it clearly stated it would do.

Even if the court had allowed Ms Haddock’s claim to be heard, I cannot see how it would have quashed the decision or injuncted the Prime Minister from notifying the European Council.

Not only would there have been an uproar as the courts blocked the popular decision (and significant economic instability), one suspects the courts would have said that to interfere in the decision and the notification would be a violation of the separation of powers.

Our litigant Ms Haddock would have lost.

In other words: for the Prime Minister (with or without cabinet) to make such a decision and notification would not be unlawful.  It would thereby be lawful.

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The thing about questions of law is that the legal position on day one should normally be the same as the legal position on day ten, if the law and the facts are the same.

If so, then if the Prime Minister today – or in September, or whenever – took the same decision and made the notification then it would be just as lawful on day ten than on day one (assuming the law or facts have not changed).

As a normative view, I agree that an Act of Parliament (or a resolution or motion in Parliament) should be the method: the referendum was not legally binding – whatever the government said – and such a significant decision should be made by Parliament.

A vote by Parliament would also provide convenient cover for a government reluctant to press the Article 50 button.

(It may well be that the legal position changes, and Parliament passes a resolution or motion that the final decision has to be made by itself.)

But I cannot see how a decision on notification made by the Prime Minister on the day of the referendum result itself would have been quashed or injuncted by the courts, had Ms Haddock brought a claim to block it.

If that was true on that day, that would be true now, all other things being equal.

And if this is correct, then presumably an Act of Parliament is not the only means by which the Article 50(1) decision can be lawfully made.

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