UK Supreme Court Rules Suspension of Parliament Was Illegal

September 24, 2019 Updated: September 25, 2019

LONDON—In a major blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s highest court ruled on Sept. 24 that his decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks in the crucial countdown to the country’s Brexit deadline was illegal.

The unanimous, strongly worded Supreme Court judgment declared the order to suspend Parliament “void and of no effect.” The court found that Johnson acted to limit debate on Britain’s impending departure from the European Union in violation of Parliament’s constitutional role.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow welcomed the historic verdict and said Parliament would resume its business on Sept. 25. He said citizens are “entitled” to have Parliament perform its core constitutional duties. There will not be a Prime Minister Questions session in Parliament on Sept. 25 because Johnson is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

The landmark decision immediately prompted calls for Johnson to quit. He hasn’t yet commented on the ruling but had said earlier that he would comply with the court’s decision.

Johnson and Parliament have been at odds since he took power in July with the determination to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal with the EU.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told his party conference that the decision shows Johnson’s “contempt” for democracy and rule of law. He said Johnson should resign “and become the shortest-serving prime minister there’s ever been.”

“I invite Boris Johnson, in the historic words, to consider his position,” Corbyn told the party faithful in the southern city of Brighton.

The harsh tone of the court’s decision, and the unanimous vote of 11 Supreme Court judges, led many to say that Johnson can’t carry on.

“His position is untenable and he should have the guts for once to do the decent thing and resign,” Scottish National Party legislator Joanna Cherry said outside the court.

Supreme Court President Brenda Hale said the suspension “was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”

She said the court’s decision means Parliament was never legally suspended and is technically still sitting.

In this nation without a written constitution, the case marked a rare confrontation between the prime minister, the courts, and Parliament over their rights and responsibilities.

It revolved around whether Johnson acted lawfully when he advised the queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks during a crucial time frame before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline when Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.

Queen Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II welcomes newly elected leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson during an audience in Buckingham Palace in London on July 24, 2019. (Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Johnson has refused to say whether he will resign or will seek to shut down Parliament again.

The decision followed three days of hearings from Sept. 17 to 19.

The court rejected the government’s assertions that the decision to suspend Parliament until Oct. 14 was routine and not related to Brexit. Government lawyers claimed that under Britain’s unwritten constitution, it is a matter for politicians, not courts, to decide.

The government’s opponents argue that Johnson illegally shut down Parliament just weeks before the country is due to leave the 28-nation bloc for the “improper purpose” of dodging lawmakers’ scrutiny of his Brexit plans. They also accused Johnson of misleading the queen, whose formal approval was needed to suspend the legislature.

By Gregory Katz, Mike Corder, and Jill Lawless

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