UK government's Brexit plans in hands of Supreme Court

2016-12-05 17:20

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London — Britain's Supreme Court began hearing a landmark case on Monday that will decide who has the power to trigger the UK's exit from the European Union — the government or Parliament.

The legal battle has major constitutional implications for the balance of power between the legislature and executive, and has inflamed Britain's already raw wound over how and whether to leave the EU.

The court's most senior justice, David Neuberger, opened the four-day hearing by condemning the "threats of serious violence and unpleasant abuse" directed at Gina Miller, one of the claimants trying to ensure Parliament gets a say.

"Threatening and abusing people because they are exercising their fundamental right to go to court undermines the rule of law," Neuberger said, banning publication of the addresses of Miller and other parties in the case.

Neuberger and 10 other justices at the country's top court must decide whether Prime Minister Theresa May's government can invoke Article 50 of the EU's key treaty, the trigger for two years of divorce talks, without the approval of lawmakers.

May plans to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, using centuries-old government powers known as royal prerogative. The powers — traditionally held by the monarch but now used by politicians — enable decisions about joining or leaving international treaties to be made without a parliamentary vote.

Financial entrepreneur Miller and another claimant, hairdresser Deir Dos Santos, went to court to argue that leaving the EU would remove some of their rights, including free movement within the bloc, and that shouldn't be done without Parliament's approval.

Last month, three High Court judges agreed. But the government says they have misinterpreted the law.

Government lawyers led by Attorney General Jeremy Wright argue that the British people have spoken by voting in a June 23 referendum to leave the EU. In written submissions, they say a parliamentary vote would mean getting lawmakers "to answer precisely the same question which was put by Parliament to the electorate and has been answered in the referendum".

Though the courtroom drama will unfold in cool legal language, it has set public passions simmering.

Highest-profile case

November's ruling infuriated pro-Brexit campaigners, who saw the lawsuit as an attempt to block or delay Britain's EU exit. The anti-EU Daily Mail newspaper labelled the justices "enemies of the people".

In a reflection of the constitutional importance of the case, all 11 Supreme Court judges are hearing the appeal, the first time the full court has sat since it was founded in 2009. The case is scheduled to last four days, with a ruling likely in January.

Brexit Secretary David Davis has insisted that "whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal ... we intend to stick to the existing timetable" for triggering talks.

Complicating the picture are new participants including politicians in Northern Ireland, who also want a say, and the Scottish government, which argues the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament should get a vote too. Britons voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU, but voters in Scotland strongly backed staying in, and the Scottish government says they shouldn't be dragged out of the 28-nation bloc against their will.

Many legal experts say the government will likely lose its appeal and be forced to give Parliament a vote.

A debate in Parliament could delay the timetable, but most lawmakers from the major parties have said they won't try to overturn the referendum result.

They could, however, seek a greater say in the government's negotiating strategy — something May and other ministers have been unwilling to disclose for fear of tipping their hand.

This is the highest-profile case in the court's history and Neuberger said the judges were "aware of the strong feelings" about Britain's EU membership.

"However, as will be apparent from the arguments before us, those wider political questions are not the subject of this appeal," he said. "This appeal is concerned with legal issues; and, as judges, our duty is to consider those issues impartially, and do decide the case according to the law.

"That is what we shall do."

Read more on:    uk  |  eu  |  brexit

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