At present, the UK parliament is attempting to pass legislation that would require Boris Johnson's government to take action to avoid a no-deal Brexit scenario. For the purposes of this question, I am assuming such legislation is passed and thus it would be illegal for the government to allow no-deal Brexit to occur.

There have been suggestions that the government might choose to simply ignore such legislation. The treaties around Brexit stipulate that Brexit will happen by default, unless the government gives notice to the contrary. Obviously, by the time it became apparent that the government had failed to give such notice, Brexit would have become a fait accompli. This would be an illegal act under UK law, but presumably UK judges would have not have jurisdiction to compel the EU to re-admit the UK to EU membership.

What (if any) legal recourse would be available in such circumstances?

Edited to add: As noted in comments, it is quite possible that the government might seek an extension in accordance with such legislation, but be unable to secure the EU's agreement. However, for the purposes of this question let's assume that the government makes no attempt to do so.

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    As a fellow continental European who is following the debate, I sincerely wish that UK politicians and the UK public would spend a lot more time living out of their bubble. The real question is not and never has been whether the PM will or will not request an extension. Rather, it is whether EU leaders will accept to extend art 50. Given how the UK has been wasting their time in the past 3 years, election or not and whether the PM asks for an extension or not, UK MPs likely will be choosing between no deal and May's deal at the last hour. It is utterly disheartening to watch UK politics. Sep 5, 2019 at 4:00
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    Treason charges against PM and his accomplices?
    – M i ech
    Sep 5, 2019 at 7:43
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    @Miech: that word has been bandied around a lot lately; and though treason covers a number of offences, no-one has been prosecuted for it since 1945, and it seems unlikely that this would count either. Sep 5, 2019 at 9:08
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    @DenisdeBernardy Even without the "carry on talking" option, there will still be the third option of revoking the article 50 request.
    – origimbo
    Sep 5, 2019 at 10:30
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    Since there's not much room for redress (same way as no redress is possible in case of murder ), only punitive course of action is possible or appropriate. Hence why I'm mentioning treason charges. In such case, convicting PM and his direct accomplices of treason, along with confiscation of their property, are the only reasonable actions remaining.
    – M i ech
    Sep 5, 2019 at 10:46

2 Answers 2


In this specific case one option would be a vote of no confidence, followed by forming an alternative government with a majority and sending the letter. There is some suggestion that Corbyn might lead such a government, because even though some people dislike him in practice he wouldn't be able to do anything other than send the letter and then call a General Election.

More generally speaking we are in unknown territory. Legal action is certain but what redress is available is unclear.


I think we're in rather uncharted waters here, but some legal opinions cited by the BBC on this matter:

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve has warned the prime minister "could be sent to prison" if he refuses to obey the law and delay Brexit.

Mr Grieve told BBC News Mr Johnson would be "under an obligation" to abide by the law after it has received royal assent.

"If he doesn't, he can be taken to court which will if necessary issue an injunction ordering him to do it," he said.

"If he doesn't obey the injunction, he could be sent to prison."

Earlier the former director of public prosecutions Lord MacDonald told Sky News a refusal to delay Brexit in the face of court action "would amount to contempt of court which could find that person in prison".

We can only speculate what would happen in such a situation... i.e. who would take over as PM, or what will the EU do in response.

Insofar there has been no public comment from the EU even on the bill itself, as far as I can tell. The latest news on the EU front (from Sep 4) were that the EU negotiating team briefed the 27 states that the UK hasn't submitted any concrete new plans, so negotiations are at an impasse.

News of a few hours ago was that EU leaders apparently gave assurances they would approve an extension as set in the Benn law

European leaders were sounded out before MPs, including the “rebel alliance”, passed a bill, which is expected to receive royal assent on Monday, forcing Boris Johnson to ask for an extension. However, those involved said there were no guarantees in a process that was changing by the day.

But that doesn't get into any details as to what the EU would do if the PM didn't obey the law... It's fairly understandable that the EU would not want to comment on that possibility at this stage.

I'll just note that Article 50 isn't incredibly explicit who in the Member State needs ask for an extension:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question [...] unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

If the UK ends up with a jailed PM for disobeying his domestic laws, that could give the EU some wiggle room as to whom they consider as legally representing the Member State concerned thereafter.

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