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Brexit Faces Legal Challenge in U.K. High Court

Posted by hkarner - 15. Oktober 2016

Date: 14-10-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Case comes amid pressure on government to give lawmakers a bigger say on Brexit process

LONDON—The main legal challenge over Brexit kicked off in a packed courtroom on Thursday, as pressure mounted on the government to give lawmakers a vote on how the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union will be carried out.

The case marks the most significant effort by opponents since the Brexit referendum, as they argue that though voters chose to leave the bloc, Parliament should have a say in the negotiations on what the future EU-U.K. relationship will look like.

In a sign of how the issue has divided the country, noisy protesters on both sides gathered outside the U.K. High Court as proceedings began.

At the heart of case is the question of whether the Conservative-led government has the authority to unilaterally trigger the formal mechanism for leaving the EU, known as Article 50, without prior approval from Parliament.

The complex case—brought by British citizens with the help of some of the U.K.’s top constitutional lawyers—is complicating things for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who has said she plans to invoke Article 50 by the end of March.

Mrs. May has taken a hard line on terms of the U.K.’s deal with the EU, pledging to prioritize the right to curb immigration over access to the bloc’s tariff-free single market. At a debate called by the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday, lawmakers criticized the government over what they said was its lack of transparency.

If the challenge succeeds, the government could be forced to introduce legislation on formally leaving the EU, giving lawmakers who opposed Brexit an opportunity to try to steer the country toward a “softer” exit, with more ties to the bloc and a more open immigration policy.

The court could rule in weeks, but legal experts say it is likely to refer the case to the Supreme Court, which would be expected to hear the case before the end of the year.

The case, which combines at least seven private actions brought by individuals who supported Britain’s continued EU membership, underscores the complexities involved in the U.K.’s decision to leave the bloc, as it becomes the first member of the modern EU to do so.

The government says it has the right to leave because of the so-called royal prerogative, whereby executive authority is given to ministers so they can govern on the monarch’s behalf.

Lawyers representing the government also say Mrs. May has a responsibility to carry out the wishes of the people as expressed in the June vote.

But the claimants argue that triggering Article 50 without prior parliamentary consent would effectively override a 1972 statute that enshrines European law in the U.K. and which the claimants say ensures rights that can only be removed by Parliament.

“The heart of this case…is that Parliament has undoubtedly created a series of absolutely fundamental rights, and they cannot be taken away by executive action,” David Pannick, a leading human rights lawyer who represents one of the plaintiffs, told the court.

Spearheading the legal challenge to Brexit is British businesswoman Gina Miller and hairdresser Deir Dos Santos. Grahame Pigney, a France-based expatriate who used crowdfunding from more than 4,000 people to pay for lawyers, has also joined the suit as a co-party. Lawyers representing the Scottish and Welsh government are also participating in the case as observers.

The hearing has been adjourned until Monday, when lawyers for the plaintiffs will conclude their cases before the government’s legal team opens their defense.

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