U.K. Supreme Court Ruling: The U.K. Government Cannot Trigger Article 50 Without the Permission of Parliament


At 09:30 GMT 24 January 2017, the U.K. Supreme Court delivered its long anticipated judgement concerning the government’s plans to trigger Article 50 - to commence Brexit negotiations with the E.U. - without consulting Parliament.

The Court ruled that the Government cannot trigger Article 50 without an act of Parliament. This means that Parliament must pass legislation first before we can start the process of leaving the E.U.

The Supreme Court, for the first time sitting with a full eleven justices, held that the European Communities Act of 1972, which ‘gave domestic effect to the U.K.’s obligations under the then existing E.U. Treaties’, did not allow Ministers to start this process without Parliament’s permission.

The judgment will come as a blow to the U.K. Government, who sought to rely on the powers of the Royal Prerogative - a power to act in the name of the Queen by-passing Parliament - to insulate the U.K.’s negotiation process with the E.U. from Parliament.

The Supreme Court was clear in its disdain for the wording of the 2015 Referendum Act, which left much of the post-leave consequences unclear for voters in the Brexit referendum.

It is important to note, however, that the ruling does not hold any bearing on the ability of the U.K. to leave the E.U. Rather, it gives clarity to the murky process of how such a move should be conducted.

Regarding the ‘Devolution Issues’, the Court ruled unanimously that the U.K.’s relationship with the E.U. is a matter for the U.K. Parliament alone and hence consultation of the Devolved Parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is not required.

In Scotland, this means that there is no legal basis for the Scottish Parliament to block Brexit. However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the Scottish Parliament will vote on whether or not the U.K. should trigger Article 50.

However, the ruling should nevertheless be considered a victory for democracy in the midst of a matter that will have the most astounding impact on the rights and responsibilities of U.K. citizens for an age.

Scope does remain for further legal challenge for a number of reasons. For example, the future position of U.K. citizens living in other E.U. countries and E.U. nationals living here remains uncertain. Likewise, various property and other rights conferred by E.U. law will be affected by Brexit. This could mean that the U.K. will face further legal challenges, perhaps on human rights grounds, and be required by the Courts to pay compensation to any aggrieved party affected by Brexit.

It is now anticipated that the U.K Government will bring forward legislation to enable it to trigger Article 50 by their self-imposed deadline of March this year. Further updates are expected.

For more information, see Supreme Court publications:

Press Summary | Judgement in Full

Daniel Donaldson