Brexit: Supreme Court rules Theresa May can’t trigger EU divorce alone

MPs in Britain's parliament and not the government should trigger Article 50 to begin Brexit negotiations, the UK's Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, backing an earlier decision by the High Court.

Brexit: Supreme Court rules Theresa May can't trigger EU divorce alone
Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government lost its appeal on Tuesday against a surprise High Court decision in November that ruled the government could not trigger Brexit negotiations without the backing of MPs in parliament.

The ruling by 11 justices resolved once and for all the row over who has the right to trigger Article 50 and start Brexit negotiations. 

Lord Neuburger read out the ruling at around 9.30 to a packed court room. He revealed that judges ruled by a majority of 8 to 3 that the government could not trigger Article 50 to begin Brexit negotiations without the backing of parliament.”

So MPs will now get the chance to vote.

Reacting to the verdict the main complainant against the government Gina Miller said: “Only parliament can grant rights to British people and only parliament can take them away…Parliament alone is sovereign.”

A spokesman for a group representing expats was also “delighted and relieved” with the ruling.

“We are the people most profoundly affected by all of this,” he said. “Everything that British citizens take for granted rests on being EU citizens.”

In a separate decision however judges ruled the government did not have to consult parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before triggering Article 50.

The government said it was disappointed by the result but will comply with it.

Neuburger had earlier stressed that their ruling had nothing to do whether or not Britain should leave the EU or how the Brexit negotiations should be managed, but only on whether the government or parliament should trigger the divorce negotiations.

While “Bremainers” will cheer the verdict, experts see the landmark ruling as slowing down the process of Brexit rather than putting a halt to it. 

British PM Theresa May has been severely criticized for trying to bypass parliament and for keeping her cards close to her chest on her negotiation strategy.

(A lone protester outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday. AFP)

Tuesday's eagerly awaited Supreme Court verdict should force her to reveal more to parliament about her planned Brexit strategy.

The legal dispute centred around the famous Article 50 of the treaty of the European Union, which must be triggered for Britain to begin the official and painstaking process of divorce from the EU.

The government believed it had the right to officially inform Brussels it is leaving the EU via its royal prerogative – powers that technically belong to the Queen, but which are vested in the government. But lawyers for the claimants, two British citizens, and other interested parties argued that parliament must have the right to decide.

Theresa May has said previously that the government would trigger Article 50 to begin formal exit negotiations by the end of March 2017, however Tuesday's decision may scupper that plan.

A date must now be set for the momentous parliamentary vote.

Once Article 50 is triggered a two year process of negotiations between the UK and the EU, will begin in earnest, although many experts believe talks will rumble on for much longer.

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.