Friday 8 March 2024

The Dillon Judgment, Disapplication of Statutes and Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol/Windsor Framework



Anurag Deb, PhD researcher, Queens University Belfast, and Colin Murray, Professor of Law, Newcastle Law School

Photo credit: Aaronward, via Wikicommons media

Extensive provisions of an Act of Parliament have been disapplied by a domestic court in the UK for the first time since Brexit. That is, in itself, a major development, and one which illustrates the power of the continuing connections between the UK and EU legal orders under the Withdrawal Agreement. It is an outcome which took many by surprise, even though we have argued at length that the UK Government has consistently failed to recognise the impact of Article 2 in rights cases. So here is the story of this provision of the Withdrawal Agreement, the first round of the Dillon case, and why understanding it will matter for many strands of the current government’s legislative agenda.

Article 2 of the Windsor Framework, as the UK Government insists on calling the entirety of what was the Northern Ireland Protocol (even though the Windsor Framework did nothing to alter this and many other provisions), is one of the great survivors of this most controversial element of the Brexit deal. Whereas other parts of the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland have been repeatedly recast, the wording of this provision has remained remarkably consistent since Theresa May announced her version of the Brexit deal in November 2018 (although it was Article 4 in that uncompleted version of the deal).

The provision was tied up relatively early in the process. Indeed, it suited the UK Government to be able to claim that rights in Northern Ireland were being protected as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, to enable them to avoid claims that Brexit was undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Although the 1998 Agreement makes limited mention of the EU in general, it devotes an entire chapter to rights and equality issues, and EU law would play an increasing role with regard to these issues in the years after 1998.   

The UK Government made great play of explaining, in 2020, that its Article 2 obligations reflected its ‘steadfast commitment to upholding the Belfast (“Good Friday”) Agreement (“the Agreement”) in all its parts’ (para 1). Even as it appeared ready to rip up large portions of the Protocol, in the summer of 2021, the Article 2 commitments continued to be presented as ‘not controversial’ (para 37). It might more accurately have said that these measures were not yet controversial, for no one had yet sought to use this provision to challenge the operation of an Act of Parliament. In a powerful example of Brexit “cake-ism”, the UK Government loudly maintained that Article 2 was sacrosanct only because it had convinced itself that the domestic courts would not be able to make much use of it.

Little over a month ago, the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper all-but sought to write the rights provision out of the Windsor Framework (para 46):

The important starting point is that the Windsor Framework applies only in respect of the trade in goods - the vast majority of public policy is entirely untouched by it. … Article 2 of the Framework does not apply EU law or ECJ jurisdiction, and only applies in the respect of rights set out in the relevant chapter of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and a diminution of those rights which arises as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Article 2 is a complex and detailed provision, by which (read alongside Article 13(3)) the UK commits that the law in Northern Ireland will mirror developments in EU law regarding the six equality directives listed in Annex 1 of the Protocol and, where other aspects of EU law protect aspects of the rights and equality arrangements of the relevant chapter of the 1998 Agreement, that there will be no diminution of such protections as a result of Brexit. But notwithstanding the complexity of these multi-speed provisions, by no construction can it be tenable to suggest that ‘the Windsor Framework applies only in respect of the trade in goods’.

The Dillon judgment marks the point at which the Government’s rhetoric is confronted by the reality of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement obligations, and the extent to which they are incorporated into domestic law by the UK Parliament’s Withdrawal legislation. The case relates to the controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, heralded by the UK Government as its vehicle for addressing the legal aftermath of the Northern Ireland conflict. This Act, in preventing the operation of civil and criminal justice mechanisms in cases relating to the conflict, providing for an alternate body for addressing these legacy cases (Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery) and requiring this body to provide for immunity for those involved in causing harms during the conflict, has provoked widespread concern within and beyond Northern Ireland.

The Act has been the subject of challenges under the Human Rights Act 1998 and an inter-state action against the UK launched before the European Court of Human Rights by Ireland. In the interest of brevity, however, this post will explore only the challenges under the Protocol/Windsor Framework. This is not the first case to invoke Article 2 (see here and here for our analysis of earlier litigation to which the UK Government should have paid more attention), but this remains the most novel element of the litigation, testing the operation of this element of the Withdrawal Agreement. It is also offers the most powerful remedy directly available to those challenging the Act; disapplication of a statute to the extent that it conflicts with those elements of EU law which this provision preserves.

These requirements are explained by the operation of Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement, which spells out that elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and the EU law which continues to be operative within the UK as a result of that Agreement will continue to be protected by the same remedies as applicable to breaches of EU law by Member States. Section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal Act) 2018 reflected this obligation within the UK’s domestic jurisdictions, as accepted by the UK Supreme Court in the Allister case (see here for analysis). For Mr Justice Colton, his task could thus be summarised remarkably easily; ‘any provisions of the 2023 Act which are in breach of the WF [Windsor Framework] should be disapplied’ (para 527). All he had to do, therefore, was assess whether there was a breach.

The rights of victims are a prominent element of the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity chapter of the 1998 Agreement. These rights were, in part, given protection within Northern Ireland Law through the operation of the Victims’ Directive prior to Brexit and, insofar as this EU law is being implemented, through the operation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights with regard to its terms. The key provision of the Victims’ Directive is the guarantee in Article 11 that applicants must be able to review a decision not to prosecute, a right clearly abridged where immunity from prosecution is provided for under the Legacy Act. The breach of this provision alone was therefore sufficient to require the application of extensive elements of the Legacy Act (sections 7(3), 8, 12, 19, 20, 21, 22, 39, 41, 42(1)) (para 608):

It is correct that article 11(1) and article 11(2) both permit procedural rules to be established by national law. However, the substantive entitlement embedded in article 11 is a matter for implementation only and may not be taken away by domestic law. The Directive pre-supposes the possibility of a prosecution. Any removal of this possibility is incompatible with the Directive.

The UK Government cannot claim to have been blindsided by this conclusion. They explicitly acknowledged the specific significance of the Victims’ Directive for the 1998 Agreement commitments in their 2020 Explainer on Article 2 (para 13). Moreover, in the context of queries over the application of Article 2 to immigration legislation, the UK Government insisted that in making provisions for victims the 1998 Agreement’s ‘drafters had in mind the victims of violence relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland’. Exposed by these very assertions, the Government hoped to browbeat the courts with a vociferous defence of the Legacy Act (going so far as to threaten consequences against Ireland for having the temerity to challenge immunity arrangements which raised such obvious rights issues).

The strange thing about the Dillon case, therefore, is not that the court disapplied swathes of the Legacy Act. This outcome is the direct consequence of the special rights protections that the UK agreed for Northern Ireland as part of the Withdrawal Agreement. The strange thing is that Mr Justice Colton arrived at this position so readily, in the face of such a determined efforts by the UK Government to obscure the extent of the rights obligations to which it had signed up. In the context of the UK’s full membership of the EEC and its successors, it took many years and many missteps to get to Judicial Committee of the House of Lords applying the remedy of disapplication of statutory provisions which were in conflict with EU law (or Community law, as it then was) in Factortame (No. 2). The Northern Ireland High Court was not distracted from recognising that these requirements remain the same within Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit legal framework when it comes to non-diminution of rights as a result of Brexit.

Indeed, the Court could not be so distracted. As we set out above, once Colton J determined that relevant sections of the Legacy Act had breached the Victims’ Directive, the judge had no discretion in the matter of disapplying the offending sections. This marks perhaps one of the strangest revelations to emerge from Brexit. Disapplication of inconsistent domestic law (of whatever provenance) as a remedy extends across much of the Withdrawal Agreement, covering any and every aspect of EU law which the Agreement makes applicable in the UK. This fact – spelled out in the crisp terms of Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement – was nowhere to be found in the 1972 Accession Treaty by which the UK became part of the (then) EEC. This is unsurprising, considering that the primacy of Community law over domestic law was then a relatively recent judicial discovery. In the decades since then, however, the principle of EU law primacy and the requirement that inconsistent domestic laws be disapplied have become a firm and irrevocable reality. Small wonder then, that the UK Government accepted it as a price to pay for leaving Brussels’ orbit without jeopardising the 1998 Agreement – no matter how it has since spun the notion of “taking back control”.

Where the government might have its own interests in attempting to obscure the clarity of Article 2 and its attendant consequences, Dillon is by some measure a wake-up call for Westminster. The report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ scrutiny of the Bill which became the Legacy Act contained no reference to the Windsor Framework, notwithstanding consistent work by the statutory Human Rights and Equality Commissions in Northern Ireland (the NIHRC and ECNI) to highlight the issue. Dillon marks not only some of the most extensive disapplication of primary legislation ever enacted by Parliament, but also the first such outcome after Brexit. But Dillon is only the beginning. It will be followed in the weeks to come by a challenge to the Illegal Migration Act 2023 by the NIHRC, where there are clear arguments that relevant EU law has been neglected. The Government, and Westminster in general, have not woken up to the legal realities of the Brexit deal. Dillon makes clear that Parliament needs to pay far greater attention to the Windsor Framework; not as a legal curio that only occasionally escapes its provincial relevance, but as a powerful source of law which impacts law-making and laws which are intended to apply on a UK-wide basis.


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