Opinion of Lord Carloway, The Lord President in the reclaiming motion by Joanna Cherry QC MP and Others v The Advocate General

JudgeLord President,Lord Brodie,Lord Drummond Young
Judgment Date11 September 2019
Neutral Citation[2019] CSIH 49
CourtCourt of Session (Inner House)
Docket NumberP680/19,No 4
Date11 September 2019


Lord President

Lord Brodie

Lord Drummond Young


Opinion of Lord Carloway, The Lord President in the reclaiming motion by Joanna Cherry QC MP and Others
Petitioners and Reclaimers against
The Advocate General

Petitioners: O'Neill QC, Welsh; Balfour + Manson LLP

Respondent: Johnston QC, Webster QC; Office of the Advocate General

Intervener (the Lord Advocate): Mure QC, C O'Neill (sol adv); Scottish Government Legal Directorate

Applicants (the BBC and others): McBrearty QC; Burness Paull


September 2019



This reclaiming motion (appeal) raises an issue of when the prorogation of the United Kingdom Parliament by an Order in Council, at the instance of Her Majesty the Queen on the advice of the UK Government, can be the subject of a judicial review. There are two central questions. The first, as a matter of law, is whether the prorogation can be judicially reviewed in circumstances in which it is alleged that it has been requested for what is said to be an improper motive viz. the stymying of Parliamentary debate on the issue of the UK leaving the European Union. The second, as a matter of fact, is whether that improper motive has been demonstrated. The Government contends that the purpose is legitimate and is simply to prepare for a new legislative programme, to be contained in HM the Queen's speech on 14 October, and to cover the period of the party conferences, during which time Parliament tends to be in recess.


There are subsidiary questions. The first concerns access by the press to documents in the court process, including certain UK Government papers which have been produced by the respondent in obedience of the duty of candour in such matters. The second is whether the court should call for unredacted copies of these documents.



Prorogation of Parliament is the means by which the Government, by the exercise of a prerogative power, can bring a Parliamentary session to an end. While Parliament is prorogued, members cannot “debate government policy and legislation, submit parliamentary questions for response by government departments, scrutinise government activity through parliamentary committees or introduce legislation of their own” (House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no 8589: Prorogation of Parliament, 11 June 2019 p 3). The typical duration of a prorogation in recent times has been “very short”. Since the 1980s, it has rarely lasted longer than two weeks and, between sessions, it has been less than a week ( ibid pp 3–4).


On 29 March 2017, following upon the authorisation which was provided by section 1 of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, the former Prime Minister (The Rt Hon Theresa May MP) wrote to the President of the European Council notifying the EU that, in terms of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the UK intended to withdraw from the EU. In terms of the article, this would take effect on 29 March 2019. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides (s 1) that, on “exit day”, the European Communities Act 1972 ceases to have effect, but (s 2) EU law is to be preserved within the domestic regime.


On 21 March 2019, following two rejections by the House of Commons of a withdrawal agreement in terms of Article 50, the Government and the European Council agreed to extend the UK's membership until 22 May, if the withdrawal agreement was approved by Parliament. Otherwise, the UK would cease to be a member on 12 April 2019. On 29 March, the withdrawal agreement was again rejected. On 10 April, a further extension to 31 October was agreed. On 24 May, the then PM resigned. On 24 July, The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP was appointed in her place.


On the same day, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 received Royal Assent. This provides (s 3) for reports on progress towards forming an Executive to be published before 4 September 2019 and thereafter laid before Parliament. Specific provision is made for the situation in which Parliament would stand prorogued or adjourned at the relevant time. In that event, a proclamation under the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 would require Parliament to meet for several days after the date on which the report was laid.


The prospect of prorogation in the context of the Parliamentary procedures involving the UK's withdrawal from the EU (commonly called “Brexit”) was first ventilated in the House of Commons as early as March 2019 as a method of circumventing the rule that the withdrawal agreement could not be the subject of a third vote during the same Parliamentary session. Prorogation, with the intention of preventing Parliament from blocking a “no deal Brexit”, was suggested in a paper by Policy Exchange on 25 March 2019. The idea is that, because the default position under Article 50 is that the UK will leave the EU with “no deal”, if none is reached by 31 October, Parliament will be unable to prevent a no deal Brexit if the time elapses with no further parliamentary action. This was covered in an article in the Daily Telegraph and was thereafter the subject of academic discussion. During the Conservative Party leadership contest, following upon the former PM's resignation, there was occasional reference to this possibility.


The petition was lodged on 30 July 2019 although the first orders were only made on 31 July 2019. The first plea-in-law is for declarator that it is ultra vires and unconstitutional for the Government to advise the Queen to prorogue Parliament with the intention of preventing sufficient time for proper consideration of Brexit. The second plea-in-law is for interdict on the basis that the petitioners are reasonably apprehensive that the Government intend to proceed in that manner. The respondent's fifth plea-in-law is that there is no basis for such an apprehension.

The Respondent's Documents


On the eve of the hearing before the Lord Ordinary, the respondent produced a number of documents relative to what happened within the Government. The first is a Memorandum dated 15 August 2019 from Nikki Da Costa, the Director of Legislative Affairs within the PM's Office, to the PM. This reads as follows:



1. The current session is the longest since records began, and all bills announced as part of the last Queen's Speech have now received Royal Assent, or are paused awaiting carry over into the next session: this makes it increasingly difficult to fill parliamentary time with anything other than general debates. As a new Prime Minister, there is an expectation that you will set out a refreshed domestic programme and it would be natural to do so when the House returns in the autumn.

2. As the first week's business in September has already been announced, I recommend dedicating the second to wash-up on bills such as R&R [Restoration and Renewals]. We would then prorogue sometime between the end of Monday 9 th September and Thursday 12 th September, allowing for the long-standing conference recess, and return on Monday 14 th October with the State Opening of Parliament.



2. ( sic). Are you content for your PPS to approach the Palace with a request for prorogation to begin with the period Monday 9 th September and Thursday 12 th September, and for a Queen's Speech on Monday 14 th October?”


The memorandum outlines certain practical considerations. Choosing when to end the Parliamentary session was a balance between having enough time for the completion of Bills which were close to Royal Assent and not wasting time that could be used for new measures in the fresh session. The recommendation was to close the session in early September. The memorandum continues:


14. Finally, politically it is essential that parliament is sitting before and after EU Council – MPs and Peers must be in a position to consider what is negotiated, and hopefully pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. If there is no deal, they need to have an opportunity to hear what you have to say, and respond accordingly.”


The memorandum noted that, in modern times, prorogation was usually less than 10 days, although there were longer periods for up to 21 days since 1980. Although the planned prorogation would be 34 days, the expected conference recess of three weeks would mean that only one to three days would be lost in the week commencing 9 September and four in the week commencing 7 October. There was no record of the House of Commons sitting in late September or early October since the start of the 20 th Century.


The recommendation to prorogue was endorsed (presumably by the PM) with the word “yes” and a tick. The second document is a redacted (although later leaked to the press in unredacted form) hand-written response from the PM, dated 16 August. It reads:

“1. The whole September session is a rigmarole introduced [REDACTED] to show the public that MPs were earning their crust

2. So I don't see anything especially shocking about this proposition

3. As Nikki notes, it is OVER THE CONFERENCE SEASON so that the sitting days lost are actually very few”.


The third document is a further memorandum, dated 23 August 2019, from Ms Da Costa to the PM. This is headed “ANNOUNCING THE QUEEN'S SPEECH”. It briefs the PM on a proposed “handling plan”. It refers to the PM's agreement to approach HM the Queen with a request to prorogue Parliament within the period Monday, 9 to Thursday, 12 September and for a Queen's Speech on Monday, 14 October. A telephone call between the PM and the Queen was fixed for the evening of 27 August. The Order in Council was to be signed on 28 August. On that day, the Chief Whip and the Leaders of the Houses of Commons and Lords were to go to Balmoral to form the necessary meeting of the Privy Council. After the...

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