Scottish Court Finds Suspension of UK Parliament Unlawful

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, center right, gestures during his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons in London on Sept. 4, 2019. (Jessica Taylor/House of Commons via AP)

(CN) – In another blow to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Scottish high court on Wednesday ruled Johnson unlawfully thwarted Parliament’s power when he got the queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks on the eve of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

A three-judge appellate panel of the Scottish Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled from the bench that Johnson’s move was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymieing Parliament” in order to facilitate his strategy of taking the U.K. out of the EU without a withdrawal deal.

This strategy by Johnson and his hardcore pro-Brexit Conservative supporters is angrily contested by opponents because leaving the EU bloc without a deal would profoundly affect Britain economically, politically and socially. Critics, including many economists, say it could be catastrophic.

The unanimous ruling by the Scottish court overturns a judge’s finding last week that the suspension was lawful. The Supreme Court in London is expected to hear a government appeal next week. Adding to the legal complexities, a high court in London ruled last week that the suspension was a lawful political move and not a matter for the courts. The Supreme Court is also taking up an appeal in that case.

Parliament is expected to remain shut down until the Supreme Court rules.

Lord Philip Brodie, one of the three Scottish judges, called the suspension “an egregious case” of not complying “with generally accepted standards of behavior of public authorities.”

Brodie also said the suspension was designed “to prevent or impede Parliament” from holding the prime minister to account and “to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no-deal Brexit without further Parliamentary interference.”

Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament on Aug. 28, shortly before it was due to return from a summer recess. The queen formally opens and closes sessions of Parliament and she approved Johnson’s request. Parliament was suspended in the early hours of Tuesday after a marathon day of proceedings on Monday. Unless it is reopened, Parliament is due back on Oct. 14.

Johnson’s ruse to shut down Parliament was vilified by his opponents as a devious political ploy to shunt Parliament aside in order to achieve his goal of forcing the U.K out of the EU by Oct. 31. Parliament’s shuttering sparked widespread protests with shouts of “stop the coup.”

Johnson argued that he wanted to start a new session of Parliament in order to lay out a platform of fresh ideas and proposals on crime, education and a post-Brexit Britain. In Britain, Parliament is routinely suspended and reopened to give the executive branch an opportunity to ask Parliament to approve its vision and priorities during a new session. Johnson insisted it was “nonsense” that he was undermining democracy by suspending Parliament.

But his ploy appears to have backfired. Since making the move, Johnson’s grip on power has been seriously weakened. He lost a string of votes in Parliament and watched outraged Tory members quit the party and his Cabinet. This left him without a working majority in the House of Commons. He’s also kicked Tory members who opposed his methods – including stalwarts like Winston Churchill’s grandson – out of the party and plowed ahead with his plans to leave the EU on Oct. 31 “do or die.”

Although Johnson is facing stiff opposition in Parliament, he enjoys substantial backing from the public, especially in England where there is a strong desire to leave the EU come what may. English of various walks of life say Britain “just needs to get on with it” and leave the EU. However, many people in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland are opposed to Brexit.

In suspending Parliament, Johnson provided the queen with reasons why she should agree to suspend the session.

The Scottish High Court though said Johnson’s “advice” to the queen was unlawful and was “thus null and of no effect.” The court was expected to issue its full written opinion on Friday.

The British media characterized Johnson as having “misled the queen” and his opponents seized on that.

“If he has been found to have misled the queen, I think the whole nation will be deeply shocked and alarmed,” Ed Davey, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, told BBC News. “This is a prime minister we already know has said he might obey a law in Parliament, so he is behaving in the most disgraceful way.”

After the ruling, opposition parties demanded that Parliament be reopened and some members held a protest at the House of Commons.

Downing Street though said Parliament would remain closed until the Supreme Court rules. The Scottish court did not order Parliament to be reopened.

The Scottish challenge was brought by 75 members of Parliament who are mostly opposed to leaving the EU. Two other legal challenges are in court in England and Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, the High Court in London issued its written ruling about its decision last week that found Johnson had lawfully suspended Parliament.

The English judges said suspending Parliament was not a matter for the courts to deal with and said it was “a prerogative power, a discretionary power still in the hands of the crown.” The court added that matters of politics and “high policy” are not for the courts to decide. It called this “separation of power between the judicial and the executive branches of government, a fundamental feature of our unwritten constitution.”

These clashing legal opinions – one from judges in Scotland and the other from judges in England – now drags the U.K. into a new chapter of Brexit contention and chaos, setting the stage for heated reactions to whatever the Supreme Court decides.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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