In recent weeks we have seen the Cooper bill designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

MPs pass Bill designed to avoid no-deal Brexit

My question is a hypothetical about constitutional law; if the PM simply chooses to ignore this requirement and doesn't ask for an extension, what is the maximum legal sanction that they or the government can suffer?

  • Are you asking about that bill specifically, or are you including other actions? In the latter case, note that the law is what parliament says it is.
    – origimbo
    Apr 9, 2019 at 11:15
  • I'm asking in general, about the constitution and the convention of the house. So for example the same question could be asked about when the government was found in contempt by not releasing its guidance in full earlier in the process. And yes, I suspected the answer might be 'whatever the house says it is'. I'm interested in the options open to the house. Could they for example order Black Rod into the house to throw the government into the cells?, etc. We're so far into so many constitutional crises right now I'm just interested in the options that the house has to enforce this requirement.
    – Skrrp
    Apr 9, 2019 at 11:23
  • 2
    There's no provision in that particular Bill for any offences. All we know is that the PM would be in breach of domestic law if the PM does not abide by it. I do not know what options would be available to 'punish' the PM in that case or similar cases. I think it would be a political question up to the Commons to decide in terms such as whether to have a vote of no confidence or how they vote on future business.
    – Lag
    Apr 9, 2019 at 11:45

2 Answers 2


Someone could sue to the government, seeking to make them comply with the law. That was the basis on which Gina Miller forced the Meaningful Vote requirement on the government.

If they prevail in court then the usual court sanctions apply, including monetary restitution and contempt of court. At that point we get into constitutional crisis mode and it's likely the Parliament would pass a motion of no confidence in the government.


There is at least the possibility of a criminal trial for misconduct in public office.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) publishes the criteria to make out the offence as

The offence is committed when:

  • a public officer acting as such;
  • wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself;
  • to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder;
  • without reasonable excuse or justification.

There is a high probability that all four elements could be substantiated if a Prime Minister wilfully neglected to do what the law required.

Misconduct in public office is an offence at common law triable only on indictment. It carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. It is an offence confined to those who are public office holders and is committed when the office holder acts (or fails to act) in a way that constitutes a breach of the duties of that office.

The Court of Appeal has made it clear that the offence should be strictly confined. It can raise complex and sometimes sensitive issues. Area Prosecutors should therefore consider seeking the advice of the Director’s Legal Advisor to resolve any uncertainty as to whether it would be appropriate to bring a prosecution for such an offence.

This would be, in effect, an impeachment. As the political ramifications of the inevitable vote of no confidence succeeding (resulting in the fall of the Government) would proceed faster than the legal process, it's doubtful that bringing a prosecution would be "appropriate" by the time the decision was made. But it is at least a theoretical possibility.

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