One day I will provide a review of films for lawyers. One of the very best, that should be better known in the UK than it is, is the Australian movie, The Castle. The most famous scene is when a lawyer is asked to explain why his client should win. He cites “the Constitution.” When pressed on which particular provision of the Constitution he relies upon, he is unable to point to any specific section, but instead relies upon “the vibe of the thing”
In his dissent in the Miller decision, Lord Reed (at ) makes an argument that I have made repeatedly on this blog since last June
“the effect which Parliament has given to EU law in our domestic law, under the 1972 Act, is inherently conditional on the application of the EU treaties to the UK, and therefore on the UK’s membership of the EU. The Act imposes no requirement, and manifests no intention, in respect of the UK’s membership of the EU. It does not, therefore, affect the Crown’s exercise of prerogative powers in respect of UK membership… Further, since the effect of EU law in the UK is entirely dependent on the 1972 Act, no alteration in the fundamental rule governing the recognition of sources of law has resulted from membership of the EU, or will result from notification under article 50. It follows that Ministers are entitled to give notification under article 50, in the exercise of prerogative powers, without requiring authorisation by a further Act of Parliament.”
It is good that this argument, that was astonishingly not made before the High Court (see para 11) was at least put. It is based upon the express words of the 1972 Act. What is the response of the majority to it? It is on this that the result of the case turns. The key part of their reasoning is at paragraphs 78 to 81. What do they say?
The first claim is that there is a “fundamental difference” between variations in the content of EU law and withdrawal from the European Union, This is because the latter involves a unilateral action by the UK that changes UK constitutional law, whilst the former does not. If EU law were eliminated save for one directive on banana curvature, that would be fine, whilst its reduction to nothing at all would not.
This is very difficult to understand. It has no textual support as a distinction in the European Communities Act itself. The change in the application of EU law to the UK by withdrawal is mandated by EU law itself (article 50). There was and is nothing unilateral about that, it was agreed between the Member States. EU law changes in many different ways. Why is this change ‘fundamentally different’ from the others? Appeals to the long title and the side notes (para 88) of the Act might be justifiable if the words of the sections (which are the law) were ambiguous or could plausibly be said to have a meaning that they do not have on their face. They do not, and no reliance is placed upon the words of the Act. As Lord Reed states, no section in the Act states “the UK shall be a member of the European Union” or any equivalent.
Second it is said that EU law is a source of law, and not just law. It would be “inconsistent with long-standing and fundamental principle” for such a change to a source of law to be brought about by ministerial decision.
Again, this is difficult to understand. EU law has its status within UK law only because of the European Communities Act. It has no independent force in our domestic law. By contrast the common law, which is judge made, has no statutory basis. If EU law really were a source of law independent of an Act of Parliament, how could an Act of Parliament remove it from UK law? Legislation could not, for example, provide that future legislation ceased to be a source of law, nor could the legislature provide that what judges decide is no longer legally binding upon the parties without abolishing law within our legal system altogether. EU law within our domestic legal order is simply not like that. It is not an independent source of law, but is wholly dependent upon UK legislation. It is because it is not a source of law (ie anterior to posited law) that it can be removed by law.
The truth is that EU law is only effective within UK domestic law because the European Communities Act says so. It is, politely, surprising that the majority base their decision not upon the words of the Act, which in the key paragraphs they ignore, but on a rather more abstract enquiry into what they feel the right answer ought to be.
In the end, the case will probably be of little practical significance. We will leave the EU, and the dispute about what was once EU law’s constitutional status within the UK will become an historical curio. That said, and despite several attempts, I see no answer to Lord Reed’s dissent in the reasoning of the majority, and have consequently found it difficult to articulate what they are saying. Vague statements about ‘fundamental principles’ and basic ‘sources of law’ are little better than appeals to the vibe.