A decision that rocked Britain to its core
Have the judges gone too far? Eleven justices of the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament unlawful. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called it a constitutional coup.
What happened? The UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson acted unlawfully when he prorogued Parliament.
The suspension would have stopped MPs from meeting for five crucial weeks in the lead up to 31 October — the date by which Johnson says Britain must leave the EU, with or without a deal.
However, a large number of MPs want to stop a no-deal Brexit at all costs. They argue that, by proroguing Parliament, Johnson abused his power to illegally silence MPs.
The Government claim that the prorogation had nothing to do with Brexit: it just was a normal part of the parliamentary process.
But yesterday, all 11 Supreme Court justices ruled against the Government. “The Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect,” read Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court.
With the prorogation wiped out, Parliament will meet tomorrow morning.
How unusual was it? It is difficult to overstate the unique character of this case in British constitutional history.
The Supreme Court has found itself in the middle of a Brexit storm before, when it decided that MPs must approve any deal with the EU. For that, the judges were branded “enemies of the people”.
But this time, the situation was far more extreme: it is the first time in modern history that a Prime Minister has tried to suspend Parliament because MPs do not agree with him.
Not since the days of absolute monarchy has such a row gripped Parliament. In 1629, at least five MPs sat on the Speaker of the Commons to stop him leaving the building and dissolving Parliament without their consent.
How powerful is the Court? The UK has three branches of power: the executive (or Government), Parliament and the judiciary.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK, which means it has the power to rule the decisions of all other courts. But it cannot overrule political decisions, which are left up to the Government and Parliament.
It can, however, step in when it thinks the Government is failing in its duties or overreaching its legal powers. That is what the justices say happened here.
Who picks the judges? The Supreme Court has 12 judges. It is very rare that they would all hear a single case.
The justices are officially chosen by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. However, the PM can only put forward names that have been chosen by a selection commission of top legal experts.
Have the judges gone too far?
Long arm of the law
“Today, a panel of unaccountable lawyers have totally overturned our constitutional order in a desperate attack on the democratic will of 17.4m British voters,” said the Leave.EU campaign group, yesterday. Judges are not elected by the people. The judiciary is famously elite, old and white. What right do they have to decide?
But that is missing the point. The justices are not making a personal, political decision: they are simply applying the letter of the law to the case at hand. They put aside prejudice and ego, and employed their huge knowledge of Britain’s centuries-old, unwritten constitution to make a reasonable, dispassionate decision. They have fulfilled a serious public duty.
- Do you agree with the justices’ decision?
- Should Brexit be cancelled?
- Write a definition of the three branches of Government: the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.
- Imagine you are interviewing Lady Hale about the court’s ruling. Think of 10 questions to ask her.
Some People Say...
“It is legal because I wish it.”Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), longest reigning king in European history
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is the job of the Supreme Court to have the ultimate decision on whether the law is being fairly applied. In order to be appointed to the Supreme Court, applicants must have been a High Court judge for at least two years, or a practising lawyer for 15 years. The Supreme Court was formed in 2009.
- What do we not know?
- If this is the only time that Boris Johnson will be found to have acted unlawfully. Over the weekend, allegations surfaced about a conflict of interest during his time as London Mayor, when he awarded public funds to US model who was a close friend of his.
- It is normal to close Parliament for four to five days before the Queen’s speech, when a new parliamentary session stars. However, this suspension was much longer than usual, and it came at an exceptional time in the run-up to Brexit.
- As elected representatives of the people, power ultimately rests with MPs. It is their job to scrutinise the Government on behalf of the people. This principle is known as parliamentary sovereignty.
- Her Majesty
- Queen Elizabeth II.
- A country’s constitution is a set of basic laws that must not be violated. The UK does not have a written constitution like the US and other countries. Instead, the constitution is based on custom and tradition found in laws and judicial decisions.
- Enemies of the people
- A front-page headline published by The Daily Mail in November 2016, which was widely criticised.
- Civil war broke out 13 years later, eventually leading to the execution of Charles I. This period of British history enshrined the rights of Parliament to scrutinise the executive.
- The courts.