UK justice minister speaks out on Brexit judiciary row

British Justice Minister Liz Truss has spoken up for the independence of the judiciary, after a High Court of three judges were vilified for a landmark ruling on Brexit.
British Justice Minister Liz Truss has spoken up for the independence of the judiciary, after a High Court of three judges were vilified for a landmark ruling on Brexit.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - British Justice Minister Liz Truss offered her belated support for the independence of the judiciary on Saturday after the High Court faced a string of political attacks over its controversial ruling on Brexit.

Truss had been criticised for staying silent over the backlash against Thursday's landmark judgment that the government cannot start the process of leaving the European Union without parliament's approval.

One newspaper denounced the three judges as "enemies of the people" while members of Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative party accused them of "judicial activism" and of seeking to undermine the June referendum vote for Brexit.

"The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality," Truss said in a brief statement.

"In relation to the case heard in the High Court, the government has made it clear it will appeal to the Supreme Court. Legal process must be followed." Just a few hours earlier, the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, had issued a statement of regret at the minister's silence over "serious and unjustified attacks on the judiciary".

As justice minister and Lord Chancellor, Truss took an oath to defend the independence of the judiciary.

"A strong independent judiciary is essential to a functioning democracy and to upholding the rule of law," the council said in a statement.

The High Court ruled that the government did not have the power to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which sets off a two-year countdown to leaving the bloc, without prior approval of parliament.

The ruling prompted outrage among supporters of Brexit, sparking fears that it could delay the process that May had promised to start by the end of March.

Before the ruling, the prime minister had condemned those who brought the legal challenge, saying they were trying to "subvert" democracy.

The court decision has fuelled speculation that May might call an early election to strengthen her support in the House of Commons before the EU vote.

Her slim majority was reduced further on Friday when pro-Brexit MP Stephen Phillips resigned, accusing the government of becoming too right-wing.

The next election is not due until 2020, but The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that ministers were now discussing the option of bringing the date forward.

Thursday's ruling caused the pound to soar, amid speculation that parliament's involvement may result in a softer break between Britain and the EU.

The majority of MPs wanted to stay in the bloc, and they may now demand guarantees on staying in Europe's single market before allowing Article 50 to be triggered.

Brexit-supporting newspapers reacted with fury on Friday to the court's decision, with The Daily Mail's "Enemies of the People" headline echoed by The Daily Telegraph's headline proclaiming "The judges versus the people".

Communities minister Sajid Javid said the case was an "attempt to frustrate the will of the British people", while former government minister Iain Duncan Smith accused the court of "judicial activism".

Bob Neill, the chairman of parliament's scrutiny committee on justice affairs, urged May to intervene, saying personal attacks on judges "have no place in a civilised land".

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator, said the criticism of the judges "would make Poland's Kaczynski or Hungary's President Orban proud".

On Friday, May called EU leaders to reassure them of her confidence of overturning the High Court ruling, and her commitment to triggering Article 50 by the end of March.