Holding power to account at the UK Supreme Court

Alumna Anna Hoffmann was part of the legal team that fought the UK Parliament shutdown.

Anna Hoffmann, a 2015 graduate of the Hertie School, discovered on 30 August that she was to join a team of lawyers in a high-profile case against UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, a case that ultimately landed at the Supreme Court. The team was representing Sir John Major, the former British prime minister, who had teamed up with activist Gina Miller to fight Johnson’s temporary suspension of Parliament.

Major had previously said Johnson’s so-called prorogation of the legislative body in the run-up to the Brexit deadline on 31 October was "fundamentally unconstitutional," "distasteful," and "hypocrisy on a gold-plated standard."

Much was at stake: If prorogation was ruled illegal, it would be more difficult for Johnson to bypass Parliament and push through a "hard" Brexit. On a more fundamental level, it was a constitutional battle between the executive and Parliament, with implications for British parliamentary sovereignty.

And it was the opportunity of a lifetime for Anna.

"When I found out I was on the case I was over the moon," she says. It was a Friday. "I didn't sleep much over the weekend, I had to get up to speed and emptied the library of all of the judicial review books I could find. Our written submissions had to be done after the weekend." she says. "Then on Thursday we were already in the High Court."

On to the Supreme Court

The High Court ruling on 6 September was a setback for Major and Miller. The court said the case was not justiciable because it was a political matter rather than a legal one. But it allowed the parties to appeal. Meanwhile, the Scottish appeals court in Edinburgh had ruled that prorogation was illegal. So the various challenges were bundled together and put before the Supreme Court.

"I think everyone started out thinking it was a long shot," Anna says. "But at the end of day three, there was a lot of talk about remedies. And that is when we started to feel quite hopeful."

Anna found herself sitting at one of the front tables with other lawyers representing the plaintiffs on 24 September, as Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, read aloud the unanimous ruling. Major was seeking a declaration that Johnson’s request to the Queen to prorogue Parliament had been unlawful.

"But the ruling went further," Anna says. "It said the prorogation itself was unlawful and therefore null and void." Aware that cameras were live-streaming from the court, Anna had to remind herself not to grin as Lady Hale announced the decision. Smiling would not, she says, have been "lawyerly."

Members of Parliament returned to Westminster and began sitting the next day. Anna and her colleagues didn’t immediately crack open the champagne – instead, they went back to their chambers "and did a bit more work," she says. But later there was a dinner with Major, whom Anna found "much nicer and more accessible than I thought."

So how did Anna, a German who grew up in Switzerland, find herself at the heart of a power-battle over UK constitutional law and at dinner with a former prime minister?

Journey to the Bar via the Hertie School

Her entry into the law was not via the orthodox route of a law degree. As a graduate of Oxford University in History and Politics, she grew increasingly interested in law while studying for her Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School from 2013 to 2015. She joined the school’s first team for the Jessup Moot Court (an initiative started by Professor of European Law Mark Dawson and adjunct Pierre Thielbörger). This is an annual advocacy competition focusing on current issues in public international law. Anna, won one of two prizes for "Best Oralist" in the German national rounds in 2015.

"This was really a turning-point for me," Anna says. "It was such an exhilarating experience. We went to Heidelberg for the final -- five days of knockout rounds, pleading in front of a panel of judges, which I really enjoyed. It's a weird kind of masochistic enjoyment, because you get grilled on all of these issues and you have to think on your feet and come up with answers and make your case."

She decided then that she wanted to become a lawyer practising in court. The quickest route was offered by the UK, where non-law graduates can apply to do a one-year conversion course followed by a one-year professional training course leading to the Bar Exams. Anna studied for the conversion remotely at the London-based University of Law while continuing to work for a law firm in Switzerland. After obtaining her diploma and completing the professional training, she was called to the Bar in 2018 and secured a pupillage at the barristers’ chambers 4 Pump Court in London.

Anna had expressed an interest in working with Lord Garnier QC, one of the senior barristers at the chambers. Major asked Garnier to represent him – and Anna was selected for the team. "It was very exciting," she says. "The balance throughout has been understanding that this is a really important case and it’s wonderful to be on it, but also understanding that you are a small part of it. I’m not sure what my impact was – I did some research and I helped."

She laughs when asked what happens next. "Some people joke that it can only be downhill from here," she says. She has completed her pupillage and plans to continue working as a barrister in London – Brexit permitting.

"My immediate environment is very supportive and encouraging," she says. "But if there's a hard Brexit and it gets much more difficult for non-British people to work and live there, that will definitely have a bearing on what I do."

"The judgment gave me – and I think a lot of other European citizens living in the UK – a bit of hope," she says. "I felt quite moved, sitting in the Supreme Court as the ruling was read aloud. I felt 'wow, this is why I went into the law, this is the law in action.'"