The High Court’s Judgment in Miller and Others – four brief remarks

Following the High Court’s ruling on whether the UK Parliament should be involved in the activation of the Article 50 process to leave the EU, Tobias Lock analyses the judgement. He observes that the UK government will find it difficult to construct an effective case on appeal, and that, should legislation indeed be required, essential questions of politics and process will follow. This blog originally appeared on European Futures.

Last week's decision by the High Court of England and Wales that the UK government does not have the power under the Royal Prerogative to initiate the process of withdrawing from the EU laid down in Article 50 TEU came as a surprise to many. This is not so much because the legal points argued by the claimants were baseless – they clearly weren’t – but because the legal realists among us probably thought that, much like the Northern Ireland High Court,  the judges would not want to burn their fingers on a highly emotive issue such as Brexit.

There will be plenty of blog articles analysing the constitutional dimensions of this ruling better than I could (such as this one by Jo Murkens). Therefore, I will confine myself to making four brief remarks.

First, the government made a cardinal mistake in conceding that a notification under Article 50 TEU cannot be revoked. This question is contentious (see eg Paul Craig’s excellent analysis) and, once that point had been given away, the claimants’ argument that Article 50 sets into motion an unstoppable chain of events at the end of which individuals will be deprived of their EU law rights was onto a winner.

An important question for the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court will be whether this point can be reopened. If it can, there is a possibility that this question (and only this question) will be referred to the European Court of Justice.

Second, the High Court’s judgement demonstrates an acute awareness of the differences between supranational EU law and ordinary international law. The High Court pointed out at various points in the ruling that EU law has direct effect and that the European Communities Act 1972 – which allows for EU law to have domestic effect – was ‘as a practical matter’ required for the UK to become a member of the EU (Paragraphs 41-42 and 66).

The High Court was at pains to point out the special constitutional significance of the Act (Paras 87-88). True, the High Court thereby respects the dualist nature of the UK legal system: EU law rights are only effective in the UK because of the European Communities Act. At the same time, it considered it practically impossible to divorce the effects of the European Communities Act from that of the EU treaties.

In the Court’s own words, this would be ‘highly formalistic’. This point will presumably be the main ground for attacking the High Court judgement (the government received some forceful support for refining its argument in these two blog articles). Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the High Court as to the special nature of EU law or not remains to be seen.

Third, what does the ruling – if it stands – mean in practice?  It requires Parliament to decide by way of statute. This means that a bill will have to be introduced by the government and voted on in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In practice, there is little doubt that Parliament will vote in favour of a bill authorising the government to trigger Article 50.

However, might Parliament be tempted to make amendments to it in an attempt to frame the government’s negotiating position?  It could, for instance, be imagined that Parliament might want to make sure that a certain degree of access to the Single Market (however that would be defined) should be retained. And might the House of Lords delay the bill, which is possible for up to one year under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949?

Fourth, are the parliaments of the devolved nations going to get a say as well? There is a constitutional convention that devolved parliaments are asked for their consent where the Westminster Parliament either legislates with regard to devolved matters – now expressly in Section 28(8) of the Scotland Act 1998 – or where it legislates to augment or reduce the powers of the devolved parliaments or executives.

If the claimants’ arguments continue to run in the Supreme Court and a bill allowing Article 50 to be triggered is introduced, would this lead to Legislative Consent Motions? The situation is not entirely clear. On the one hand, one could adopt the reasoning of the High Court in Belfast, which ruled that EU matters were an excepted matter (or in the Scottish context a reserved matter) and therefore no legislative consent was required.

On the other hand, an argument can be constructed that, because the triggering of Article 50 will inevitably lead to Brexit, it will inevitably lead to a change in the powers of the devolved parliaments and executives so that the convention kicks in. Certainly, the convention is only a convention (ie there is no way of legally enforcing it).  Moreover, it only applies ‘normally’, and Brexit could be considered abnormal.  At the end of the day, these subtleties do not matter much. It is chiefly a political question, which will need to be played out between London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

post by Tobias Lock
Edinburgh Law School
7th November 2016

Latest blogs

  • 22nd March 2018

    The devolved legislatures’ ‘continuity’ legislation prepares their statute books for Brexit in the event of an ongoing impasse with the UK Government over the so-called ‘power grab’ in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Professor Nicola McEwen suggests these ongoing discussions and debates provide insight into the challenges and opportunities likely to shape ongoing intergovernmental relationships.

  • 22nd March 2018

    Two decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. In the light of the Referendums of recent years, our colleagues at the Constitution Unit at UCL established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission's research director, Dr Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference.

  • 9th March 2018

    Stephen Hornsby, a partner at Goodman Derrick LLP, comments on Michael Keating's recent paper on the policy making implications of Brexit for agriculture in the UK.

  • 9th March 2018

    In response to the apparent surge in support for Corsican nationalists, President Macron has made it clear that Corsica will not be allowed to distinguish itself further from the rest of France. However, says Dr Alexendra Remond, support for autonomy may be symptomatic more of disenchantment with the status quo than of growing Corsican nationalism.

  • 2nd March 2018

    With little enough fanfare, Cabinet Office Minister David Liddington MP set out how Britain will operate post-Brexit. Prof Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon consider what he had to say.

Read More Posts