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Constitutions

Previous: The structure of government

Every country or jurisdiction can be said to have a constitution. In simply terms, a constitution is the body of principles which governs the state: how it is structured, how power is distributed etc. However, there is some debate over what a constitution is.

The meaning of ‘constitution’

In a narrow sense, a constitution can be a written document with high legal sanctity which contains the framework of government and state principles. The US constitution could be likened to such a definition. However, the UK does not fit this definition, it does not have a bill of rights. Though it still has a constitution. In a much broader sense, we can say that a constitution is:

A set of rules and principles, regarded as authoritative, which specifies the location of public power and regulates how that power is to be exercised.

Therefore constitutions attempt to identify who may exercise public power, enable that exercise and limit it.

Types of constitutions

Written constitutions

A written constitution, such as a bill of rights, has all of a state’s constitutional principles contained in the text itself. It is a species of higher law and is difficult to amend or repeal, buy alprazolam eu though it is easier to find violations when a constitution is written.

Unwritten constitutions

Unwritten constitutions lack any authoritative or definitive text, therefore are evolutionary, flexible and easy for a legislature to change, such as Parliament in the UK. As the UK’s constitution is unwritten, or uncodified, it is said to be very robust at governing relationships between the state and individuals.

Sources of constitutional law

  • Statutes – for example: Magna Carta 1215, Bill of Rights 1689, Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949, EC Act 1972
  • Common law – for example Entick v Carrington [1765] and M v Home Office [1994]
  • Laws and customs of Parliament
  • Conventions
  • Prerogative powers of the monarch

A note on conventions

Constitutional conventions make up a significant part of the UK’s constitution. The Queen conventionally appoints the person who’s party has the majority of seats in the Commons as Prime Minister, for example. Conventions cannot be enforced legally, only politically, as was ruled in Attorney General v Jonathan Cape [1976], where conventions were not allowed to be used as reasoning in court.

Next: Separation of powers

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