The government has lost its fast-tracked appeal to the supreme court, forcing ministers to introduce emergency legislation into parliament to authorise the UK’s departure from the EU.
In a judgment that sets a far-reaching constitutional precedent and upholds parliamentary sovereignty, the court ruled by a majority of eight justices to three that MPs and peers must give their consent before the government can trigger article 50 and formally initiate Brexit.
The decision sets clear limits on the extent of the government’s executive powers. Rights embedded in the law by the 1972 European Communities Act, which took the UK into what was then the European Community, cannot be removed by the government’s prerogative powers, a majority of the justices declared.
The eagerly awaited ruling by the largest panel of judges ever assembled in Britain’s highest court routes the protracted Brexit process through parliament, handing over to MPs and peers the authority to sanction the UK’s withdrawal.
The supreme court ruled that there was no need for the government to wait for consent from the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Although the ruling represents a blow to Theresa May’s intended timetable on Brexit, a Downing Street spokesman said the ruling had not changed the verdict of the British people.
“It’s important to remember that parliament backed the referendum by a margin of six to one and has already indicated its support for getting on with the process of exit to the timetable we have set out,” a spokesman said. “We respect the supreme court’s decision, and will set out our next steps to parliament shortly.”
The government now has a tight deadline to pass even a short bill through parliament, but it is still possible to meet its article 50 deadline of the end of March. In May’s favour, there is not a large appetite in either the Commons or the Lords to actively block the process.