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Boris Johnson Image Credit: AFP

The UK's top judges inflicted an unprecedented legal defeat on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, branding his controversial decision to suspend Parliament unlawful and calling on lawmakers to return to Parliament as soon as possible.

The unanimous landmark decision by the 11 judges on Tuesday is a boost for MPs seeking to prevent Johnson pulling the country out of the European Union by October 31 without a deal. By limiting the prime minister's power to suspend Parliament in the future, the judges also deprived Johnson of one of his last weapons to force through Brexit before his self-imposed deadline.

The decision to prorogue Parliament was "unlawful, void and of no effect," Judge Brenda Hale, president of the Supreme Court, said delivering the ruling. The decision to "prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification."

The prime minister's opponents had argued that the suspension was a sham designed to stymie democratic scrutiny. Johnson, who is in New York this week trying to negotiate a revised deal with European leaders, now faces the challenge of getting Brexit through Parliament without a majority, full control over the parliamentary timetable - or a way to avoid scrutiny from lawmakers.

The pound initially advanced on the court's decision, but markets quickly settled back as traders assessed the lingering uncertainty.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow called for Parliament to reconvene.

"As the embodiment of our Parliamentary democracy, the House of Commons must convene without delay," Bercow said in a statement. " To this end, I will now consult the party leaders as a matter of urgency."

The legal challenge to the powers of the prime minister shows how the political infighting over Brexit has strained Britain's largely unwritten constitution to its limits. It has also pushed the judiciary into the uncomfortable position of having to rule on a question of politics, something Britain's Supreme Court has largely eschewed.

"This is an extraordinarily strong, and most importantly unanimous judgment," Ros Kellaway, a partner at the law firm of Eversheds Sutherland. "There is no wiggle room for the government here. Furthermore, the court has dealt immediately with the effect of its judgment on the unlawful prorogation, Parliament can start sitting immediately."

Extension to the negotiations

With the deadline to pass an exit deal currently set for October 31, lawmakers have already passed legislation requiring Johnson to seek an extension to the negotiations with the EU until the end of January. Some of the litigants in this case have already started proceedings to ensure that extension is requested, even if Johnson refuses to make it himself.

"I think it shows people that this government is wholly incapable of solving the Brexit crisis," Anna Soubry, a member of Parliament who quit Johnson's Conservative Party earlier this year.

Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition Labour Party, and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson called on Johnson to quit after the ruling.

The Scottish Nationalist Party's Joanna Cherry said if Johnson "he had a shred of integrity he would jump before he is pushed."

Perhaps the sole victory for the prime minister was that the court wasn't definitive that he'd lied to Queen Elizabeth II, who had to approve the prorogation of Parliament at his request.

"It is impossible for us to conclude on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason - let alone a good reason - to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks," the justices wrote in their decision.

The Supreme Court judgment followed three days of hearings last week, following which the 11 judges had to consider whether they had authority to rule on what Johnson argued was a political matter, whether Johnson's intent for the suspension was, and, if his motives were to stymie debate, what they could do. Senior judges in Scotland and England had already disagreed on those questions.

A London court had ruled that in the English case, led by businesswoman Gina Miller, that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on the political questions. In a case brought by over 70 Scottish lawmakers, a court in Edinburgh disagreed, saying that Johnson was limiting Parliament's ability to debate Brexit in the short period left before the Brexit cliff-edge.

"Crucially, today's ruling confirms that we are a nation governed by the rule of law "" laws that everyone, even the Prime Minister, are subject to," Miller said after the hearing. "It has been examined by the most senior court and judges in the United Kingdom, and they have found unanimously that the Prime Minister unlawfully advised the Queen to prorogue/shut Parliament to silence our democratically elected MPs at one of the most critical times in our country's modern history."

Last week, government lawyer Richard Keen said the challenge was "inviting the courts into forbidden territory and one that is essentially a minefield." Aidan O'Neill, a lawyer for the Scottish contingent, called the suspension "an abuse of power." The judges have been at pains to emphasize that they weren't debating the ins and outs of Brexit, but are strictly considering a legal issue.