Scotching Brexit? Background to the Wightman case about reversing the Article 50 notification unilaterally



Alan S. Reid, Senior Lecturer in Law, Sheffield Hallam University. The author welcomes comments on the blog at a.s.reid@shu.ac.uk

As the Brexit clock ticks down, and the diametrically opposed objectives of Theresa May's negotiating imperatives become ever more exposed, the clamour to clarify the processes and procedures surrounding Brexit intensifies.

At the tail end of 2017, a group of seven Scottish politicians, from across the political spectrum and from all three legislatures for Scotland (the Scottish Parliament, the UK Parliament and the European Parliament) commenced an action in the Scottish Court of Session, essentially seeking an answer to the simple question 'Can a member State of the European Union unilaterally revoke their Article 50 TEU notification to leave the EU?' The group is headed by Andy Wightman MSP, and the other pursuers are Ross Greer MSP, Alyn Smith MEP, David Martin MEP, Catherine Stihler MEP and Joanna Cherry QC MP. English MPs Tom Brake and Chris Leslie were joined in the case in May 2018.  The case was crowdfunded through the Good Law Project, headed by Jolyon Maugham, who is also a petitioner.

The pursuers are keen to know the answer to this question since they believe that the route to Brexit is not unidirectional and binary. For the pursuers, representing constituents in a nation of the United Kingdom which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU referendum, Brexit does not have to result in 'Deal or No Deal'. Rather, there may be a third way: A People's Vote that includes the option to Remain in the European Union.

In order for a Scottish court to make any pronouncement on this legal question, the court would have to send a preliminary reference request to the European Court of Justice under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union since Article 50 TEU is a provision of EU law and by definition, only the CJEU can offer a binding interpretation of EU law for the entire EU.

In February 2018, the pursuer's application for judicial review (subject, in Scotland, to the Court of Session Act 1988, s. 27B) was refusedby Lord Doherty in the Outer House of the Court of Session, on the basis that the question of the revocability or otherwise of an Article 50 TEU notification was a purely hypothetical and academic one, since both the UK Parliament and Her Majesty's Government had no yearning to resile from the path to Brexit (paras 10-14 of the judgment).  In particular, Lord Doherty opined that the pursuer's action had no reasonable prospect of success (para 8; see s 27B(2)(b) of the Act) since the matter was not a justiciable matter suitable for judicial determination.

The pursuers appealed the decision to refuse the judicial review and accompanying CJEU reference to a bench of three Scottish judges in the Inner House of the Court of Session by way of a reclaiming motion (which is the process whereby a decision of the Outer House of the Court of Session can be appealed). In their judgment, the panel of three judges heavily criticised the terms of the original judicial review pleadings as being overly complicated, unclear and potentially confusing and fell way below the standards expected for a judicial review application. (The clarity and structure expected in a judicial review claim were set out by Lord Hope in Somerville v The Scottish Ministers [2007] UKHL 44, at paras. 39, 46, 52 and 65. See also Lord Rodger's dicta at para. 88) Nevertheless, given the constitutional importance of the question raised, their lordships were minded to forgive such careless drafting and allow the appeal and remit the case to the Outer House for judgment (para 12). In the opinion of their lordships, the case was neither academic nor hypothetical given that the UK Government could be asked to revoke the Article 50 TEU notification at the request of the UK Parliament (para 30). But, even where the case were to proceed, the pursuers would need time to revisit and rephrase their averments (para 34).

Following a much amended set of pleadings, Lord Boyd of Duncansby heard the application for judicial review in June 2018. Lord Boyd refused the application and thus with it any chance of a preliminary reference request being submitted to the European Court of Justice (para 75). His Lordship's opinion hinged on the hypothetical and speculative nature of the claim. At the time of the judgment, the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was still a bill progressing through Parliament and thus a definitive date for UK withdrawal from the European Union had not yet been set out as a matter of UK law. Rather, the date of exit of the UK was only set out as a matter of EU law as per the terms of Article 50(3) TEU, that is the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or two years from the date of Article 50 notification itself.

As is well known, the European Court of Justice does not entertain national courts submitting hypothetical questions concerning EU law (see, for instance, Foglia v Novello). The preliminary ruling procedure is a practical cooperative link (for example, Case C‑470/12 Pohotovost) between the national courts of the member States and the Court of Justice of the EU, designed to help the national courts decide cases in which the interpretation of EU law is integral to the resolution of the dispute before the national court. (In the Scottish context, see the case of Scotch Whisky Association v Lord Advocate, discussed here) Having reviewed the authorities in this matter, Lord Boyd declared that the case was a hypothetical one which did not need to be answered in order for him to give judgment. He also stated that this position was synonymous with the position adopted by the Scottish courts as to hypothetical cases before them (for example, see Macnaughton v Macnaughton Trustees 1954 S.C. 312 as discussed by Lord Boyd at para. 48).

The petitioners, in their case, also objected to the stated position of UK Ministers that outlines that Article 50 TEU is not unilaterally revocable. Indeed, in the earlier seminal constitutional case of Miller,  the question of unilateral revocability of Article 50 TEU was assumed by both parties to be answered in the negative (para 10 of that judgment). Lord Boyd refused to entertain an in-depth discussion as to the legal appropriateness of the stated position of UK Ministers on the revocability of Article 50 TEU on the basis that were he to do so, this would be a usurpation of Parliamentary privilege and contrary to Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 (paras 54-58 of his judgment). 

The pursuers then immediately appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session, where their reclaiming motion was successful. The judgment of the Inner House was delivered on the 21st of September 2018. The Inner House found for the Reclaimers on a number of grounds. Lord Carloway, the Lord President, dismissed the UK Government's claim that the judicial review action was not competent because the order sought was not practical. On the contrary, Lord Carloway considered that the issue was justiciable precisely because there was such controversy as to the appropriate way forward within the parliamentary process (paras 22-23 of the judgment). More significantly, the court also found that the case was no longer hypothetical since in between the date of the judgment by Lord Boyd and the present case, the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 had now passed onto the statute books and certain provisions of that Act had come into force.

In particular, section 13 of the Act – the “meaningful vote” section – provides that the UK Parliament will be faced with a binary choice after a withdrawal agreement has been provisionally agreed between Her Majesty's Government and the European Union: Parliament must either approve the terms of the withdrawal agreement and accompanying text on the future framework for UK-EU relations or not approve. In the event that approval has not been forthcoming, the Government must inform the Parliament of how it intends to proceed within 21 days of the decision not to approve. Further, in the period up to the 21st of January 2019, if the Government again considers that no deal can be agreed then Parliament must be told of how the Government intends to proceed and again after the 21st of January 2019, the Government must inform Parliament of how it intends to proceed.

In all of these scenarios, there is a presupposition that both the Brexit clock inexorably continues to countdown to the 29th of March 2019 and that the choice for the UK Parliament is stark: Deal or No Deal. The Scottish politicians at the heart of this case contended that there is an alternative to this dystopian vision: The UK population can be given a People's Vote on the terms of the deal, including an option to Remain in the EU. However, this option will only be realisable if the UK's automatic exit from the EU on the 29th of March 2019 can be postponed and the only ways to disapply the automatic departure of the UK is by the UK either securing the agreement of the 27 other Member States to extend the Article 50 TEU time period or by unilateral rescission of the Article 50 TEU notification.  If neither of these options can be secured, then clearly, given that it is November 2018, there will be insufficient time to organise the necessary preparations for what would be in effect a second referendum on UK membership of the EU.

In the reclaiming motion, the Scottish judges approved the text of the question that they wished to send to the CJEU (see the Appendix to the judgment). The question is thus:

“Where, in accordance with Article 50 of the TEU, a Member State has notified the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, does EU law permit that notice to be revoked unilaterally by the notifying Member State; and, if so, subject to what conditions and with what effect relative to the Member State remaining within the EU.”

Given that time is of the utmost essence in this case, the Scottish court expressly requested use of the expedited procedure (see Article 105 of the Rules of Procedure of the CJEU) before the Luxembourg court. At present, the average time taken for the CJEU to deliver a ruling under the Article 267 TFEU procedure is 15.7 months (page 114 of the 2017 Annual Report of the CJEU) . Such a timeframe would, ironically, render the judgment academic since the UK is heading towards Brexit in just over four months.  However, even with the expedited procedure, the Court will in all likelihood take between 3 and 5 months to render a judgment. Even this timeframe is problematic given that, at the time of writing, the UK and the EU have agreed a provisional withdrawal agreement on the 13th of November 2018.

In order for the issue of the revocability of Article 50 TEU to have practical import, UK politicians would need to know the answer to this question before they are asked to perform their constitutional task of participating in a meaningful vote on the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Given that there is an agreement in principle in existence between the UK and EU, it is likely that UK MPs will be asked to vote on the terms of the deal before the Christmas parliamentary recess, a mere six weeks away.

The window of opportunity for the CJEU is exceedingly tight. It received the Scottish reference on the 3rd of October 2018. Sixteen days later, the President of the CJEU confirmedthat, given the constitutional seriousness of the case, the case would be expedited. It will be heard on the 27th of November 2018.

The UK Government has formally objected to this preliminary ruling request on a number of fronts. Firstly, the UK Government has published a policy paper to the effect that the question from the Scottish court is still a hypothetical one and that the CJEU has overstepped its judicial role in effectively acquiescing in this subterfuge. These arguments can be dealt with cursorily. As a cooperative horizontal judicial process between national courts and the CJEU, it is for the national court alone to determine the appropriateness of sending an EU law question to the CJEU for adjudication. As such, it is a subjective task for the judges seised of the case before them to assess whether they require a resolution to an EU law question in order to enable them to make a decision (See for example, Case 126/80 Salonia).  Secondly, if that is the case, then the answer from the CJEU is not merely an advisory one, rather it is a sine qua non of the national judges preforming their constructive and practical constitutional role.

The UK Government's second approach to taking exception to this Scottish court reference was to challenge the process of requesting assistance from the CJEU itself. The Advocate General for Scotland alleged that the proper course for this issue should have been for the Court of Session to have appealed the case up to the UK's Supreme Court for adjudication rather than sending the case to Luxembourg. The Inner House of the Court of Session, on the 8th of November 2018 refused leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. The UK Government has not given up and has more recently submitted legal papers to try to get the Supreme Court to order cancellation of the reference request from the Court of Session. The Supreme Court has confirmed receipt of these legal papers and has assigned the case to Lady Hale, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge. It is to be expected that a ruling will be forthcoming from the Supreme Court given the Supreme Court's statement itself that it is aware of the urgency of the matter and the fact that the CJEU will hear the Wightman case on the 27th of November 2018.

Regardless of the relative merits or demerits of such an approach by the UK Government, these legal actions evidence a worryingly poor grasp of EU law principles. It is a well-established doctrine of EU law that the Article 267 TFEU Preliminary Ruling Procedure is not an appeal mechanism and as such national courts are free to submit requests to the Luxembourg court, free of any interference from higher national courts (See for example Cases 36 and 71/80 Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association v Ireland ECLI:EU:C:1981:62 and Case 338/85 Fratelli Pardini SpA v Ministero del Commercio con l'Estero ECLI:EU:C:1988:194).

Superior courts of the Member States are of course free to issue guidelines to the lower courts on when references should be sent to the CJEU (See for example the dicta of Sir Thomas Bingham MR in R. v International Stock Exchange of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland Ltd Ex p. Else (1982) Ltd [1993] QB 534 and the case of Emerald Supplies Limited & Others v British Airways Plc [2017] EWHC 2420 (Ch)), and the CJEU itself issues guidelineson how to refer EU law questions to it, however, these guidelines cannot fetter the wide discretion afforded to national courts to make their own decision on the appropriateness of an Article 267 TFEU reference.  The lack of knowledge of basic underpinnings of EU law at the heart of the UK Government is either negligence writ large or an unashamed attempt to circumvent well established judicial lines of communication between national courts and the CJEU. Either way, it diminishes the reputation of UK Plc. and conversely enhances the standing and reputation of the Scottish courts and politicians.

Nevertheless, inexorably the Brexit clock lurches forward and it remains to be seen whether Scotland can Scotch Brexit for the evident utility of the entire United Kingdom.

*Update (23 Nov 2018): on 20 November 2018 the UK Supreme Court refused to give leave to appeal against the decision to refer, on the grounds that the Court of Session judgment was not final. The CJEU will therefore hold a hearing in this case as planned on 27 November. Also, you can find the full text of the written legal arguments of Mr Wightman and others before the CJEU here

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: Scotcourts.gov.uk


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