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Brexit legal challenge: High Court bid could derail Theresa May’s EU exit timetable

Remain supporters have crowd-funded £32,000 in legal fees to argue Ms May will need Parliament's backing before beginning formal negotiations to leave the EU

Andrew Grice
Friday 19 August 2016 18:03 BST
British Prime Minister Theresa May during a press conference after a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, in Warsaw, Poland, 28 July 2016
British Prime Minister Theresa May during a press conference after a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, in Warsaw, Poland, 28 July 2016 (EPA)

Theresa May’s timetable for negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union could be derailed by a High Court challenge in October.

Pro-EU campaigners who claim the Prime Minister needs Parliament’s backing before starting formal talks have raised £32,000 towards their £50,000 initial legal costs from 840 people through crowd-funding. They are confident their “People’s Challenge” will go ahead.

Ms May is expected early next year to trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which will start two years of Brexit negotiations. The Government has refused to promise MPs and peers a vote on the decision, fuelling speculation that it may use the Royal Prerogative, under which the monarch’s historic powers are exercised by ministers without needing Parliament’s approval.

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About 480 of the 650 MPs backed Remain in the June referendum and there is a strong pro-European lobby in the House of Lords. Although many MPs and peers are wary of opposing the public’s decision, if they were consulted, they might push for negotiations to be delayed and for the fullest possible access for the UK to the EU single market after Brexit.

Grassroots campaigners who have launched the “People’s Challenge” claim that the rights they enjoy as British citizens inside the EU cannot be taken away unless the Acts of Parliament giving effect to EU law are repealed by Parliament. They include Grahame and Rob Pigney, who live in France; Christopher Formaggia, who lives in Wales, Paul Cartwright, who is from Gibraltar; Tahmid Chowdhury, who lives in London and Fergal McFerran from Belfast.

John Halford, a partner at law firm Bindmans which is representing the group, said: “The support the public have shown so far for this case is heartening. It demonstrates that people feel profoundly troubled by the prospect of having rights they have had for four decades stripped away in the democratic vacuum that will be created if the Prime Minister is allowed to use the Royal Prerogative to invoke Article 50. The People's Challenge group's stand against that happening is courageous and a critical means to ensure ordinary British citizens’ voices are heard and given real weight by the courts on this issue.”

Several separate challenges the Government over Article 50 are being planned and they are likely to be heard together in mid-October.

Ms May is also under political pressure to delay the start of Brexit talks. Some politicians, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, have argued that it would be better to wait until after elections in France next spring and Germany next autumn so the Prime Minister knows with whom she will be negotiating. But the European Commission and other EU leaders are pressing the UK to open formal talks as soon as possible.

The EU’s approach to Brexit will be discussed by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor; Francois Hollande, the French President and Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister, at a summit near Naples on Monday. The 27 EU leaders, meeting without the UK, will debate the issue in Bratislava next month.

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