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From UK, clear signal for courts

The court ruled as illegal PM Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament and virtually introduced the concept of judicial review

By Amit Roy in London

  • Published 25.09.19, 4:11 AM
  • Updated 25.09.19, 8:09 AM
Protesters hold banners outside the Supreme Court in London last week
Protesters hold banners outside the Supreme Court in London last week (AP)

The British Supreme Court has decided that it has the power to review the Prime Minister’s decisions when they undermine Parliament and stymie debate.

The court ruled as illegal British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament and virtually introduced the concept of judicial review to the Westminster system that India largely follows.

For Britain, the unanimous decision means lawmakers are still in session and will continue the debate over Brexit. Parliament had been prorogued till October 14 after Prime Minister Johnson asked the Queen to do so.

“This court has already concluded that the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect,” said Baroness Hale, president of the UK Supreme Court.

For democracies like India, the ruling is a signal that an independent judiciary can find the leeway to rein in the executive with numerical majority when parliamentary conventions are undermined. Normally, courts steer clear of political decisions taken by the executive.

Back in India, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “The significance of today’s UK Supreme Court judgement for those of us who live in other parliamentary systems inspired by the British model should not be missed. The judgement makes clear that the leeway for the political executive to subvert convention is limited.”

He added: “To put it bluntly, the executive, in the name of its Parliamentary majority, cannot use Parliament’s own powers and privileges to undermine itself. In short, Parliament cannot be induced by its own majority to commit suicide. Note: UK precedents are often cited by Indian courts.”

Analysts had speculated that the British apex court, which has historically avoided politics, might decide that it had no authority to rule on the Prime Minister’s actions.

Instead, it made a landmark decision to intervene in a fierce clash between Johnson and Parliament, and delivered a resounding defeat for the Prime Minister and an unequivocal victory to his critics.

Some legal experts worry the British judgment could set a troubling precedent, opening the door to a form of judicial review that is widely accepted in the US, which has a Supreme Court that actively interprets the Constitution.

Britain, by contrast, relies on an unwritten set of traditions and conventions that have treated a sovereign Parliament as the supreme law of the land. Once the courts venture into the political sphere and begin passing judgment on Parliament’s actions, some legal analysts say, there is no going back. 

Additional reporting from New York Times News Service and PTI

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