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R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 2017 | Public Law

R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (2017) UKSC 5, also known as Miller I, was a pivotal legal case decided by the UK Supreme Court on January 24, 2017. This case revolved around the fundamental question of whether the British Government, specifically the executive branch, could initiate the process of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Union without first obtaining the explicit approval of the UK Parliament.

In the context of the impending Brexit, the government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, sought to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which triggers the formal process of withdrawing from the EU. The government argued that it could use the royal prerogative, a set of executive powers, to take this step without involving Parliament. Essentially, they believed they could act on their own authority.

The central question in the case was whether the government's use of the royal prerogative could be employed to nullify rights and laws that had been established by the UK Parliament itself through primary legislation. In essence, could the executive branch bypass Parliament when making such a significant decision?

The UK Supreme Court, in a majority decision of 8-3, ruled against the government's position. They found that the government did not have the authority to trigger Article 50 without first obtaining parliamentary approval. The Court's reasoning was based on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which asserts that Parliament is the supreme legal authority and that no person or body can override or set aside its legislation. The Court held that the use of the royal prerogative to initiate Article 50 would undermine rights enacted by Parliament through primary legislation, as it would effectively change the law without parliamentary consent.

The decision reinforced the importance of parliamentary involvement in significant constitutional matters and foreign affairs decisions. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, the government was required to seek approval from the UK Parliament to formally trigger Article 50. This led to the subsequent passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which authorised the government to begin the process of leaving the EU.

In summary, Miller I was a landmark case that clarified the constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the limits of the royal prerogative. It ensured that the UK's withdrawal from the EU would only proceed with the explicit approval of Parliament, highlighting the central role of elected representatives in significant national decisions.

You can learn more about this topic with our Public Law notes.

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