UK Supreme Court rules prorogation of parliament unlawful

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Courtroom of the Supreme Court, 2015
Image: Diliff.

Today at 10:30 BST (0930 UTC), the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom issued a ruling on the prorogation — a procedural suspension — of the Parliament of the United Kingdom until October 14. The court found that it could rule on the prorogation, and found the prorogation to be unlawful. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal on all civil matters in the United Kingdom, as well as criminal matters in parts of the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court is led by President Brenda Hale.

Boris Johnson, August 13, 2019
Image: The White House via John Bolton.

The summary of the decision read in part: "This Court has already concluded that the Prime Minister's advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect. This means that the Order in Council to which it led was also unlawful, void and of no effect and should be quashed. This means that when the Royal Commissioners walked into the House of Lords it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper. The prorogation was also void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued. This is the unanimous judgment of all 11 Justices."

Press pack outside UK Supreme Court in London, September 17
Image: Steve Nimmons.

Queen Elizabeth II suspended parliament at the behest of Boris Johnson, the current prime minister, on September 10. He is widely suspected of asking for prorogation to prevent legislative interference in his efforts to complete the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU), known as Brexit for British exit. Following that reasoning, the Court of Session in Scotland ruled on September 11 the prorogation was unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled on the appeal of that decision by Johnson's government.

The High Court of England and Wales also ruled on the same day as the Scottish court, finding that the prorogation of Parliament was not a matter for the courts: "In our view, the decision of the Prime Minister to advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament is not justiciable in Her Majesty’s courts."

For three days last week, the court heard arguments from the two sides. Former prime minister John Major has accused Johnson of misleading the Queen, and argued that the true intent of seeking prorogation was to shut down debate in parliament, as the Court of Session found. The government's counter-argument was that prorogation is a political tool given by the legislature to the executive branch. If Parliament does not like prorogation or how it is used, it has the power to change the law. It is not for the Court to opine about the motivations, argued the government's lawyer, Richard Keen.

Britons voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. After failed negotiations for a deal on trade and deadline extension the deadline currently stands at October 31, 2019. Johnson has repeatedly stated that Britain must leave by that date with or without a deal. On September 13 — two days after the Court of Session ruling — he said he remained "cautiously optimistic" a deal would be reached.