The arguments for, and against, the legal challenge to the government’s power to trigger the process of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the EU without statutory authorisation are now in the public domain. My view is that the issue is a straightforward one of statutory interpretation, and the government’s detailed ground of resistance are particularly bad in making an easy issue appear complex and difficult.
Professor Mark Elliot has set out in detail a critique of the government’s case. Here I briefly summarise for a layperson the essence of what the government’s lawyers have got wrong.
Having a Power and Reviewing its Exercise
The central problem with the government’s case as presented is that it confuses the questions of whether (1) the government has the power to withdraw from the EU, and (2) the justiciability of the decision to exercise that power. This case concerns (1), not (2). Indeed, as the government has not as yet sought to exercise that power, any litigation on question (2) would be premature.
The central objection to the government alone being able to withdraw from the EU is that they would be doing so under the “Royal Prerogative” in a way that would overturn the European Communities Act 1972. As every first year student of constitutional law learns, the Royal Prerogative is , in Lord Bingham’s words, a “relic of a past age.” Can it really be the case that this anachronistic, idiosyncratic, undemocratic leftover could be used to overturn an Act of Parliament?
The straightforward answer to this question is that the exercise of the power under Art 50 is not being used to overturn or invalidate the European Communities Act. Art 50 is part of EU law just as much as any other article. Section 2 of the European Communities Act incorporates into UK domestic law the EU law applicable to the UK “from time to time”. If EU law by its terms ceases to be applicable to the UK, it ceases to be incorporated into UK law. Once two years have elapsed (if not extended) following notice under Article 50, EU law by its own terms ceases to apply to the United Kingdom. This notice can only be given by the government: Parliament is not an actor in international law.This is the result required by the European Communites Act itself, which would be the instrument by which EU law ceases to be incorporated. The Act is not being overruled but given effect to.
The Act that brought the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community, will also cause it to leave the European Union.
The relevant actors under international law for entering into treaties and exercising powers under them are necessarily governments. This is true of the UK as much as for any other country. There is nothing peculiar, idiosyncratic or archaic about who acts for the United Kingdom in international law: it is the government. However, if the UK government has a particular legal power, the question then arises as to whether the decision to exercise it is reviewable by a domestic court.
Courts will not overturn a government’s decision simply because the judge thinks it is the wrong one. The law has given the government the decision to make, not the judge, and the judge will often be in a worse position than the government to make it not having the relevant competence to do so. But this does not mean that government decisions are not subject to any oversight whatsoever. If, for example, the government had decided to invoke Article 50 for wholly arbitrary reasons, because the Prime Minister of the day objected to the colour of Angela Merkel’s hair, would that be reviewable by the courts? It is at least arguable that in such extreme circumstances it should be, even though it concerns a matter of foreign policy, just as other exercises of prerogative power are.
The legal effect of the referendum result is to close down any such argument. It is impossible to argue that if the government has the power to exercise Art 50 without further statutory authorisation that it would then be irrational to do so. I think it would be wrong, but that is an entirely different order of question.
It is therefore to say the least odd that the government’s case focuses on the second question of justiciability of the (as yet unmade) decision. It may well be that Brexit “is a matter of the highest policy, a polycentric decision based upon a multitude of domestic and foreign policy and political concerns for which the expertise of Ministers and their officials are particularly well suited and the Courts ill-suited.” But so what? That isn’t the issue.