THE UK WITHDRAWAL FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION (LEGAL CONTINUITY) (SCOTLAND) BILL – A Reference by the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland

Cite as:[2018] UKSC 64
Hand-down Date:December 13, 2018

Michaelmas Term [2018] UKSC 64


THE UK WITHDRAWAL FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION (LEGAL CONTINUITY) (SCOTLAND) BILL - A Reference by the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland

(Scotland) before

Lady Hale, President Lord Reed, Deputy President Lord Kerr

Lord Sumption

Lord Carnwath

Lord Hodge Lord Lloyd-Jones JUDGMENT GIVEN ON 13 December 2018 Heard on 24 and 25 July 2018 Applicants

(The Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland) Lord Keen of Elie, Advocate General for Scotland

Sir James Eadie QC Jason Coppel QC

Margaret Gray

BJ Gill

Christopher Knight

(Instructed by The Government Legal Department)

Lord Advocate

W James Wolffe QC, Her Majesty's Advocate James Mure QC

Christine O'Neill

Lesley Irvine

(Instructed by The Scottish Government Legal Directorate)

Counsel General for Wales

Michael Fordham QC

Hollie Higgins

(Instructed by Welsh Government Legal Services Department)

Attorney General for Northern Ireland

John F Larkin QC, Attorney General for Northern Ireland (Instructed by Office of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland)


  1. Does the Scottish Parliament have power to legislate for the continuity of laws relating to devolved matters in Scotland which are now the subject of European Union ("EU") law but which will cease to have effect after the United Kingdom ("UK") withdraws from the EU? That is the principal subject matter of a reference by the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland ("the UK Law Officers") to this court under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 as amended ("the Scotland Act").

  2. This is the judgment of the court.

    Factual background

  3. On 29 March 2017 the UK Government notified the European Council of its decision that the UK would withdraw from the EU in accordance with article 50 of the Treaty on European Union ("article 50" and "TEU"). Subject to the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union ("CJEU") on the reference by the Inner House of the Court of Session on the revocability of article 50 or unless a withdrawal agreement were to provide otherwise or there were to be unanimous agreement of the member states of the EU to an extension of the time limit for withdrawal set out in article 50, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU on 29 March 2019.

  4. So long as the UK is a member of the EU, EU law governs matters within its sphere in each of the jurisdictions of the UK without differentiation. When the Scotland Act was enacted, the power to amend EU law, the body of rights and obligations which are binding on all EU member states, resided with the EU institutions. It still so resides. But on the UK's withdrawal from the EU ("UK withdrawal"), and subject to any agreement to the contrary, EU law will cease to bind the UK and its constituent jurisdictions.

  5. Many of our laws are the product of EU legislation through directly applicable EU Regulations, decisions and tertiary legislation, or are derived from EU law, for example by the implementation in our domestic legal systems of EU obligations such as those contained in EU Directives. To achieve legal continuity and to promote legal certainty it is considered necessary to incorporate direct EU legislation into domestic law and to preserve the effect of EU-derived domestic legislation after UK withdrawal.

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  6. On 13 July 2017 the UK Government introduced in the House of Commons the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill ("the UK Bill") to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and to achieve legal continuity within each of the jurisdictions of the UK after withdrawal from the EU. That Bill was not passed by both Houses of Parliament until 20 June 2018. It received Royal Assent on 26 June 2018, becoming the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 ("the UK Withdrawal Act").

  7. Both before and during the passage through Parliament of the UK Bill, the UK Government discussed its terms with representatives of devolved institutions in the UK. After proposed amendments to the UK Bill, which the Scottish Government supported, were defeated in the House of Commons, the Scottish Government introduced the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill ("the Scottish Bill") in the Scottish Parliament on 27 February 2018. In accordance with section 31 of the Scotland Act 1998 both the Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Government (John Swinney MSP), who introduced the Bill, and the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament (Rt Hon Kenneth Macintosh MSP) issued statements on the legislative competence of the Scottish Bill when it was introduced to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government expressed the view that the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. The Presiding Officer expressed the view that it would not, because the Bill, which would be enacted before the UK withdrew from the EU, would not be compatible with EU law at the time when the Scottish Parliament passed the legislation. In short, the Presiding Officer opined that the Scottish Parliament could not seek to exercise competence before that competence had been transferred to it and that provisions in the Bill, which postponed the legal effect of the legislation until UK withdrawal, did not alter the Parliament's competence at the time when the legislation was passed.

  8. The Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish Bill on 21 March 2018. This resulted in the reference to this court under section 33(1) of the Scotland Act which provides that the Advocate General, the Lord Advocate or the Attorney General "may refer the question of whether a Bill or any provision of a Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Parliament to the Supreme Court for decision". The reference was made within four weeks of the passing of the Scottish Bill in accordance with section 33(2) of the Scotland Act. The Lord Advocate has responded to the reference and has submitted that the Scottish Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

  9. The Scottish Parliament was not the only devolved legislature that sought to pass legislation to provide for domestic legal continuity after the UK's withdrawal from the EU on exit day. After the UK Parliament did not accept amendments to the UK Bill which the First Minister of Wales supported, the Welsh Assembly passed legislation to similar effect as the Scottish Bill in the Law Derived from the

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    European Union (Wales) Bill ("the Welsh Bill"). This resulted in a reference by the Attorney General to this court under section 112(1) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 in relation to the Welsh Bill. But, after agreement was reached between the Welsh Government and the UK Government on 24 April 2018 which resulted in amendments to clause 11 of the UK Bill (now section 12 of the UK Withdrawal Act) and the Welsh Assembly gave legislative consent to the UK Bill, the Attorney General has withdrawn that reference. The Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Act 2018 received the Royal Assent on 6 June 2018 and came into force on the following day by virtue of section 21.

  10. Nonetheless, the questions which this reference raises have implications not only for the Scottish Parliament but also for the other devolved legislatures of the UK. The Counsel General to the Welsh Government and the Attorney General for Northern Ireland have therefore appeared as interveners and have addressed the court. We are very grateful to them for their assistance.

    The role of this court

  11. Withdrawal from the EU will result in legislative powers, which are currently vested in EU institutions, being transferred to institutions in the UK. There has been and is a political debate as to which institutions within the UK should best exercise those powers in the public interest. It is not the role of this court to form or express any view on those questions of policy, which are the responsibility of our elected representatives and in which the wider civil society has an interest. Our role is simply to determine as a matter of law whether and to what extent the Scottish Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. That question is answered, as we explain below, by analysing the provisions of the Scotland Act.

    The Scotland Act

  12. Since the Scottish Parliament commenced its work on 2 July 1999, the courts have had occasion to interpret the law by which it is governed. The main principles may be summarised as follows. The powers of the Scottish Parliament, like those of Parliaments in many other constitutional democracies, are delimited by law. The Scottish Parliament is a democratically elected legislature with a mandate to make laws for people in Scotland. It has plenary powers within the limits of its legislative competence. But it does not enjoy the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament; rules delimiting its legislative competence are found in section 29 of and Schedules 4 and 5 to the Scotland Act, to which the courts must give effect. And the UK Parliament also has power to make laws for Scotland, a power which the legislation of the Scottish Parliament cannot affect: section 28(7) of the Scotland Act. The Scotland Act must be interpreted in the same way as any other statute. The courts have regard

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    to its aim to achieve a constitutional settlement and therefore recognise the importance of giving a consistent and predictable interpretation of the Scotland Act so that the Scottish Parliament has a coherent, stable and workable system within which to exercise its legislative power. This is achieved by interpreting the rules as to competence in the Scotland Act according to the ordinary meaning of the words used.

  13. These statements of the law can be found in Whaley v Lord Watson 2000 SC 340, 348-349 per the Lord President (Lord...

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