Sources of the UK Constitution

Sources of the UK Constitution

Statute law: this is law made by Parliament, and is one of the most important sources of the UK constitution, as statute law overrides other laws, (EU laws excepted) due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Examples would be the European Community Act of 1972, and the Human Rights Act of 1998.

Common law: this is ‘judge-made law’- laws based on precedent and tradition. When deciding on the legality of a case, judges will use previous decisions on similar cases- these are examples of common law. For example- the powers contained in the Royal Prerogative (which are now exercised by the Prime Minister).

Conventions: these are non-legal established rules of conduct and behaviour- what is ‘expected’. For example, the monarch granting Royal Assent (royal approval) to each bill passed by Parliament, the appointment of the Prime Minister (the leader of the Commons’ largest party), and collective responsibility (all government ministers openly support all government policy).

Works of authority: works written by scholars seen as experts in the constitution- they outline what is ‘correct’ for the UK constitution. For example, Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867), Dicey’s An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885).

EU laws/treaties: the UK is subject to European laws and treaties, and will remain so until formally exiting the EU. Sometimes these laws and treaties come into conflict with UK law, so questioning parliamentary sovereignty. Examples include the Treaty of Rome (1957) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2009).

Order of importance:

  1. EU law
  2. Statute law
  3. Common law
  4. Conventions and works of authority

Principles of the UK constitution

Parliamentary sovereignty: the principle that absolute, supreme and unrestricted power lies with Parliament.

JS Mill suggested that Parliament:

Can do anything it wants, except turn a man into a woman.

Parliament is sovereign as there is no codified constitution for judges to use to challenge it, statute laws outrank other laws, and Parliament cannot bind its successors (no law that is made cannot be unmade).

This idea has been challenged though, due to the wider use of referendums (transferring sovereignty to the people), the argument that Parliament is restricted by practical considerations and outside interests, and the issue of EU laws conflicting with statute law.

Rule of law: the second ‘twin pillar’ of the UK constitution (alongside parliamentary sovereignty). The principle that the law applies to everyone, even those in government.

Parliamentary government: there is a fusion of powers between the executive (the government of the day- Prime Minister, cabinet ministers and so on) and the legislature (Parliament). Parliament provides the government in the members of the government are drawn from Parliament.

Constitutional monarchy: the monarchy in the UK has no real political power, but remains in place- this is due to the fact it is long-established and traditional. The monarch sits ‘above’ the government, but is merely a figurehead (and perhaps a symbol of unity for the country).

EU membership: the UK is a member of the EU. This means that European law can override statute law in some cases (established by the Factortame case of 1991- UK law was that fishing boats had to have a majority of British owners. This was against EU law, so was overruled). The EU issues thousands of policy directives each year, some of which affect the UK. Many areas, such as health, education, social services, are unaffected, but areas such as human rights, environmental policy, consumer affairs are affected. Despite this the UK Parliament retains the power to leave the EU at any time (demonstrated by Parliamentary approval of the triggering of Article 50).

One of the key principles of the UK constitution is parliamentary sovereignty. What is the second ‘twin pillar’?
Rule of Law
Which document established the supremacy of Parliament over the monarch, and was agreed in 1689?
Bill of Rights
What type of bills cannot be amended by the Lords?
Money Bills
Which source of the constitution ‘outranks’ all other sources?
EU Laws
What is the term for a constitution not written as one document?
What is the term for a constitution where power in centralised in one body?
What is sometimes referred to as ‘judge-made law’?
Common Law
Who suggested that Parliament can do anything it wants, ‘except turn a man into a woman’?
Which Act united England and Wales with Scotland?
Act of Union
What are long-established practices (what is ‘expected’)?