UK Supreme Court rules – Parliament must authorize the triggering of Brexit – R. v. Secretary of State for Exiting European Union, 2017 UKSC 5

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Today, in an 8:3 split ruling in R. v. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, 2017 UKSC 5, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held that Parliament must first authorize the exercise of Article 50’s triggering of the notice for exiting the European Union. While this blog focuses on Canadian constitutional law, what I found of interest was the discussion by the majority on the role of royal prerogative under the Constitution. Much of that discussion is applicable in the Canadian context.

Much of the judgments deal with the background to the U.K.’s entry into the E.U. in 1973 and the laws passed in support of that entry and subsequent to that entry. I will not review that discussion here. But the following review of the constitution of the United Kingdom, I thought, bears repetition:

40. Unlike most countries, the United Kingdom does not have a constitution in the sense of a single coherent code of fundamental law which prevails over all other sources of law. Our constitutional arrangements have developed over time in a pragmatic as much as in a principled way, through a combination of statutes, events, conventions, academic writings and judicial decisions. Reflecting its development and its contents, the UK constitution was described by the constitutional scholar, Professor AV Dicey, as “the most flexible polity in existence” – Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (8th ed., 1915), p. 87.

41. Originally, sovereignty was concentrated in the Crown, subject to limitations which were ill-defined and which changed with practical exigencies. Accordingly, the Crown largely exercised all the powers of the state (although it appears that even in the 11th century the King rarely attended meetings of his Council, albeit that its membership was at his discretion). However, over the centuries, those prerogative powers, collectively known as the Royal prerogative, were progressively reduced as Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law developed. By the end of the 20th century, the great majority of what had previously been prerogative powers, at least in relation to domestic matters, had become vested in the three principal organs of the state, the legislature (the two Houses of Parliament), the executive (ministers and the government more generally) and the judiciary (the judges). It is possible to identify a number of seminal events in this history, but a series of statutes enacted in the twenty years between 1688 and 1707 were of particular legal importance. Those statutes were the Bill of Rights 1688/9 and the Act of Settlement 1701 in England and Wales, the Claim of Right 1689 in Scotland, and the Acts of Union 1706 and 1707 in England and Wales and in Scotland respectively. (Northern Ireland joined the United Kingdom pursuant to the Acts of Union 1800 in Britain and Ireland).

42. The independence of the judiciary was formally recognised in these statutes. In the broadest sense, the role of the judiciary is to uphold and further the rule of law; more particularly, judges impartially identify and apply the law in every case brought before the courts. That is why and how these proceedings are being decided. The law is made in or under statutes, but there are areas where the law has long been laid down and developed by judges themselves: that is the common law. However, it is not open to judges to apply or develop the common law in a way which is inconsistent with the law as laid down in or under statutes, ie by Acts of Parliament.

43. This is because Parliamentary sovereignty is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution, as was conclusively established in the statutes referred to in para 41 above. It was famously summarised by Professor Dicey as meaning that Parliament has “the right to make or unmake any law whatsoever; and further, no person or body is recognised by the law as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament” – op cit, p 38. The legislative power of the Crown is today exercisable only through Parliament. This power is initiated by the laying of a Bill containing a proposed law before Parliament, and the Bill can only become a statute if it is passed (often with amendments) by Parliament (which normally but not always means both Houses of Parliament) and is then formally assented to by HM The Queen. Thus, Parliament, or more precisely the Crown in Parliament, lays down the law through statutes – or primary legislation as it is also known – and not in any other way.

44. In the early 17th century Case of Proclamations (1610) 12 Co Rep 74, Sir Edward Coke CJ said that “the King by his proclamation or other ways cannot change any part of the common law, or statute law, or the customs of the realm”. Although this statement may have been controversial at the time, it had become firmly established by the end of that century. In England and Wales, the Bill of Rights 1688 confirmed that “the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regall authority without consent of Parlyament is illegall” and that “the pretended power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regall authoritie as it hath beene assumed and exercised of late is illegall”. In Scotland, the Claim of Right 1689 was to the same effect, providing that “all Proclamationes asserting ane absolute power to Cass [ie to quash] annull and Dissable lawes … are Contrair to Law”. And article 18 of the Acts of Union of 1706 and 1707 provided that (with certain irrelevant exceptions) “all … laws” in Scotland should “remain in the same force as before … but alterable by the Parliament of Great Britain”.

45. The Crown’s administrative powers are now exercised by the executive, ie by ministers who are answerable to the UK Parliament. However, consistently with the principles established in the 17th century, the exercise of those powers must be compatible with legislation and the common law. Otherwise, ministers would be changing (or infringing) the law, which, as just explained, they cannot do. A classic statement of the position was given by Lord Parker of Waddington in The Zamora[1916] 2 AC 77, 90:

“The idea that the King in Council, or indeed any branch of the Executive, has power to prescribe or alter the law to be administered by Courts of law in this country is out of harmony with the principles of our Constitution. It is true that, under a number of modern statutes, various branches of the Executive have power to make rules having the force of statutes, but all such rules derive their validity from the statute which creates the power, and not from the executive body by which they are made. No one would contend that the prerogative involves any power to prescribe or alter the law administered in Courts of Common Law or Equity.”

46. It is true that ministers can make laws by issuing regulations and the like, often known as secondary or delegated legislation, but (save in limited areas where a prerogative power survives domestically, as exemplified by the cases mentioned in paras 52 and 53 below) they can do so only if authorised by statute. So, if the regulations are not so authorised, they will be invalid, even if they have been approved by resolutions of both Houses under the provisions of the relevant enabling Act – for a recent example see R (The Public Law Project) v Lord Chancellor  [2016] AC 1531. 

The majority’s discussion of royal prerogative and how that residual power meshes with Parliamentary supremacy is also apposite:

47. The Royal prerogative encompasses the residue of powers which remain vested in the Crown, and they are exercisable by ministers, provided that the exercise is consistent with Parliamentary legislation. In Burmah Oil Co (Burma Trading) Ltd v Lord Advocate [1965] AC 75, 101, Lord Reid explained that the Royal prerogative is a source of power which is “only available for a case not covered by statute”. Professor HWR Wade summarised the position in his introduction to the first edition of what is now Wade and Forsyth on Administrative Law (1961), p 13:

“[T]he residual prerogative is now confined to such matters as summoning and dissolving Parliament, declaring war and peace, regulating the armed forces in some respects, governing certain colonial territories, making treaties (though as such they cannot affect the rights of subjects), and conferring honours. The one drastic internal power of an administrative kind is the power to intern enemy aliens in time of war.”

48. Thus, consistently with Parliamentary sovereignty, a prerogative power however well-established may be curtailed or abrogated by statute. Indeed, as Professor Wade explained, most of the powers which made up the Royal prerogative have been curtailed or abrogated in this way. The statutory curtailment or abrogation may be by express words or, as has been more common, by necessary implication. It is inherent in its residual nature that a prerogative power will be displaced in a field which becomes occupied by a corresponding power conferred or regulated by statute. This is what happened in the two leading 20th century cases on the topic, Attorney General v De Keyser’s Royal Hotel Ltd [1920] AC 508 and Fire Brigades Union cited above. As Lord Parmoor explained in De Keyser at p 575, when discussing the prerogative power to take a subject’s property in time of war:

“The constitutional principle is that when the power of the Executive to interfere with the property or liberty of subjects has been placed under Parliamentary control, and directly regulated by statute, the Executive no longer derives its authority from the Royal Prerogative of the Crown but from Parliament, and that in exercising such authority the Executive is bound to observe the restrictions which Parliament has imposed in favour of the subject.”

I recommend the reading of the entire judgment for those interested in the issue as to how royal prerogative is used in the creation of international treaties and the whole Brexit question. But this judgment may prove to be some useful fodder in a future Canadian constitutional challenge because of its discussions of the structure of the United Kingdom constitution and its review of royal prerogative and Parliamentary supremacy.

I remain

Constitutionally yours,

Arthur Grant







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