Thoburn v Sunderland City Council [2003]

Thoburn v Sunderland City Council, also known as the Metric Martyrs case, is a significant UK constitutional and administrative law case that delves into the interplay between EU law and an Act of Parliament.

This case is notable for its acknowledgment of the supremacy of EU law and the foundation for such acknowledgment. While the Factortame case had previously touched upon Parliament's voluntary acceptance of EU law supremacy, Thoburn placed less emphasis on the jurisprudence of the ECJ and more on the domestic acceptance of this supremacy, introducing the concept of constitutional statutes immune from implied repeal.

The factual background of the case revolves around the Weights and Measures Act 1985, which recognised both the pound and the kilogram as equally legal units. In 1994, the Units of Measurements Regulations were enacted to align the UK with a European directive, specifying that the use of the pound as a primary indicator of measurement for trade would become illegal after January 1, 2000. The Metric Martyrs, including individuals like Steve Thoburn, were prosecuted for using imperial measures, challenging the legal basis for metrication.

The Sunderland Magistrates' Court initially ruled in favour of EU law supremacy, stating that as long as the UK remained an EU member, its laws were subject to the primacy of community law. The appellants, known as the Metric Martyrs, contested these decisions before the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court.

The appellants argued that the recognition of both metric and imperial units in the 1985 Act implied a repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, rendering subsequent regulations invalid. They also contended that the Henry VIII clause in the 1972 Act did not authorise amendments to future legislation. Additionally, arguments were made based on public international law and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Lord Justice John Laws, in delivering the judgment, acknowledged the coexistence of metric and imperial systems in the 1985 Act but rejected the idea of implied repeal. He outlined a constitutional framework distinguishing between ordinary and constitutional statutes, where constitutional statutes, including the European Communities Act 1972, were protected from implied repeal and could only be repealed expressly by Parliament.

Laws LJ emphasised that the relationship between EU and national law must be judged exclusively by national law. He affirmed the supremacy of EU law in cases of inconsistency with national law, but constitutional statutes, such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights 1689, Acts of Union 1707, Reform Acts, Human Rights Act 1998, Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998, and the European Communities Act 1972, were not subject to implied repeal.

The appellants sought permission to appeal to the House of Lords, but it was refused. Attempts to petition the European Court of Human Rights were also unsuccessful, with the court finding no violation of rights and freedoms set out in the convention or its protocols.

Thoburn v Sunderland City Council remains a crucial case in understanding the intricate balance between Parliamentary sovereignty and EU law supremacy within the UK's legal framework. The judgment established the concept of constitutional statutes, offering protection from implied repeal and shaping the dialogue on the relationship between national and EU law.
Back to blog

UOL Case Bank

Upon joining, you become a valuable UOL student and gain instant access to over 2,100 case summaries. UOL Case Bank is constantly expanding. Speed up your revision with us now.

Subscribe Now

Where are our students from?

Yale University
Council of Europe
Baker Mckenzie 
University of Chicago
Columbia University
New York University
University of Michigan 
University College London (UCL)
London School of Economics (LSE)
King’s College London (KCL)
University of London
University of Manchester
University of Zurich
University of York
Brandeis University
University of Exeter
University of Sheffield
Boston University
University of Washington
University of Leeds
University of Law
Royal Holloway, University of London 
Birkbeck, University of London
SOAS, University of London
University of Kent
University of Hull
Queen’s University Belfast
Toronto Metropolitan University
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
University of Buckingham
ESSEC Business School

  • Criminal Practice

    Diagrams and Charts

    Our carefully designed diagrams and charts will guide you through complex legal issues.

  • Criminal Law

    Clear and Succinct Definitions

    Key concepts are concisely defined to help you understand legal topics quickly.

  • Property Law

    Statutory Provisions

    Statutory provisions are provided side by side with legal concepts to help you swiftly locate the relevant legislation.

  • Public Law

    Case Summaries

    We have summarised important cases for you so that you don't need to read long and boring cases.

  • Evidence

    Rules and Exceptions

    Rules and exceptions are clearly listed so that you know when a rule applies and when it doesn't.

  • Company Law


    Legal terms and key concepts are explained at the beginning of each chapter to help you learn efficiently.

  • Case Law

    Case law is provided side by side with legal concepts so that you know how legal principles and precedents were established.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Law Essay Guide

    You will learn essential law exam skills and essay writing techniques that are not taught in class.

  • Law Exam Guide

    Problem Question Guide

    We will show you how to answer problem questions step by step to achieve first-class results.

  • Conflict of Laws

    Structured Explanations

    Complex legal concepts are broken down into concise and digestible bullet point explanations.

  • Legal System and Method

    Legal Research

    You will learn legal research techniques with our study guide and become a proficient legal researcher.

  • Jurisprudence and Legal Theory


    All essential concepts, principles, and case law are included so that you can answer exam questions quickly.