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UK PM Johnson's suspension of parliament is an abuse of power, court hears

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson abused his powers by suspending parliament from next week until shortly before Britain is due to leave the European Union, London’s High Court was told on Thursday.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Johnson announced at the end of August that he would suspend parliament from mid-September to mid-October, just before Britain is due to exit the EU on Oct. 31, so the government could announce a new legislative program.

In a judicial review of that decision, brought by campaigner Gina Miller who defeated the government over another Brexit issue two years ago, the High Court was told parliament had never been suspended for so long in the last 40 years.

Miller’s lawyer, David Pannick, said comments from Johnson showed that an important part of his reasoning for the prorogation, or suspension, was that parliament might say or do something that impeded the government’s Brexit plans.

He cited Johnson’s note to aides on Aug. 16 dismissing the September gathering in the House of Commons as a “rigmarole” and saying he did not see “anything especially shocking” about suspending parliament.

“It breaches the legal principle of parliamentary sovereignty,” Pannick said. “What the prime minister is not entitled to do is to close parliament for five weeks at such a critical time without justification.”

Johnson, who took office in July, has promised to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a withdrawal agreement.

The legal challenge has lost some of its impact after lawmakers voted this week to force Johnson to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without an agreement on Oct. 31, and there could soon be a general election.

James Eadie, the government lawyer, said the question of suspension was “inherently and fundamentally” political and not a matter for the courts.

He said Pannick’s central argument was that lawmakers would not be able to legislate over a no-deal Brexit but that events of the last days “indicate that is just untenable” and rendered the proceedings “slightly pointless”.

Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, said he and two other senior judges would aim to give their verdict at 0900 GMT on Friday.

The ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, Britain’s highest judicial body, which has penciled in Sept. 17 to hear the case.

Pannick said the case was not about whether Britain should leave the EU or on what terms, nor was it a criticism of Queen Elizabeth, who agreed to the government’s request for a suspension.

He said Johnson’s case was that there was no precedence for such legal action.

“Our response is that there is no precedence because no prime minister in modern history has abused his power” to advise the queen to suspend parliament for so long, he added.

Miller, who mounted a successful legal challenge to former Prime Minister Theresa May’s government over its authority to leave the EU without a vote in parliament, is being backed by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major and Shami Chakrabarti, the opposition Labour Party’s top legal adviser.

On Wednesday, a Scottish court hearing a similar case ruled that Johnson’s decision was not one for judges to decide. A similar legal challenge in Northern Ireland will also be heard on Friday.

Editing by Andrew MacAskill, Stephen Addison and Frances Kerry