LONDON Dec 7 The referendum in which Britons
voted to leave the European Union is not legally binding, the
Supreme Court was told on Wednesday during a hearing on who has
the power to trigger Brexit.
The court is considering an appeal by the government against
a ruling last month that ministers cannot invoke Article 50 of
the EU's Lisbon Treaty, the first formal step in the process of
leaving the bloc, without parliament's explicit approval.
If the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, the risk for the
government is that proceedings in parliament could delay Prime
Minister Theresa May's plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of
March, watering down her Brexit strategy.
The case has inflamed passions in Britain, with pro-Brexit
critics saying those challenging the government through the
courts were seeking to thwart the will of the people.
On Wednesday, police announced they had arrested a man on
suspicion of making racist threats against Gina Miller, the lead
claimant in the case against the government.
David Pannick, the lawyer acting for Miller, told the court
the June referendum, in which Britons voted for Brexit by 52
percent to 48, had important political consequences but not
"Parliament has deliberately chosen a model which does not
involve any binding legal effect," he told the 11 Supreme Court
justices during an exchange on the 2015 act of parliament that
set the rules for the referendum to take place.
Pannick argued that the 2015 act did not say what should
happen after the referendum, and that since triggering Article
50 would effectively nullify the 1972 act through which Britain
joined the EU, only parliament could authorise such a step.
OVER TO THE GOVERNMENT?
Pannick's assertion that the outcome of the referendum was
merely advisory goes to the heart of the controversy generated
by the case.
Many politicians in May's Conservative Party and some
pro-Brexit newspapers say the courts would be overstepping their
constitutional role if they ignored the express will of the
Miller and Pannick counter that their case is not aimed at
blocking Brexit but rather at ensuring parliament is properly
involved in the process. They won convincingly in the High Court
Supreme Court President David Neuberger questioned Pannick
on Wednesday over whether parliament needed further involvement.
"One could say it (the referendum process) is parliament
ceding the ground ... to the people, to a referendum. It's done
that, and then it's over to the government," Neuberger said.
"It could be said to be a bit surprising that ... an act
such as the Referendum Act and an event such as the referendum
has no effect as a matter of law."
A stone's throw away from the Supreme Court, parliament will
vote on Wednesday on whether to back May's timetable on Article
Pannick said that even parliament did vote in favour of the
March deadline, that would make no difference to his case that
parliament, not ministers, had the power to authorise triggering
"Our submission is that a motion in parliament does not
affect, cannot affect, the legal issues in this case," he said.
(Writing by Michael Holden and Estelle Shirbon; editing by John