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United Kingdom Legal Research Guide

This in-depth guide will help researchers navigate legal materials for the United Kingdom.

The UK's Decision to Leave the European Union

Table of Contents

Overview & Implications

On June 23, 2016, the government of then Prime Minister David Cameron held a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union.  Of the 72 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots, 51.9 percent voted in favor of leaving the the EU.  The unexpected outcome, which resulted in Cameron's resignation, will have a profound impact on the UK's legal system and is likely to dominate UK politics and lawmaking for years to come.

Cameron's successor, Theresa May, announced that her government would initiate the process of withdrawing from the EU by the end of March, 2017, without holding a vote in Parliament.   This decision prompted a legal challenge.  On November 3, 2106, a three-judge panel of the the High Court of Justice ruled that the government must obtain Parliament's consent before it can initiate the withdrawal process.  Although the court's ruling will not stop Brexit, it is likely to slow the process.  The government has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Key issues to be determined during the course of the withdrawal negotiations include whether, and to what extent, the UK will retain access to the EU's single market and whether, and to what extent, the UK will be able to curtail the free movement of EU citizens within its borders.

Equally daunting are the constitutional challenges posed by Brexit.  Some legal scholars contend that a general election should be held before the negotiations begin or that a second referendum will be needed to ratify the final withdrawal agreement.  Most significantly, Brexit could result in the dissolution of the UK as a political entity.  Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of the devolved Scottish government, has stated that she will consider holding a second Scottish independence referendum if Scotland's interests are harmed by the UK's departure from the EU.


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