sources of the uks constitution


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Sources of the UK Constitution
A. Statutes and the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty
o Acts passed by the Westminster parliament are the highest legal source of the
constitution; a majority of one in the Commons is sufficient to introduce major
constitutional changes - like the European Communities Act 1972 which effectively
made Britain subject to the European constitution, the Treaty of Rome, 1957.
o It is not possible to entrench constitutional laws and principles in the UK. This
is simply on account of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (see section
below). In this context, the doctrine means that Parliament cannot be limited in
its actions by any past statute or agreement. Thus, even where constitutional
statutes exist, Parliament is free to repeal or amend them by a simple majority
o In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act changed an accepted principle that accused
persons had the right to remain silent under questioning and in court, without any
assumptions being made that this might indicate guilt. Such a 'right to silence' is
certainly a common element in written constitutions elsewhere. Since the passage
of the Act, however, such silence can be used as prosecuting evidence. By the same
principle, of course, lack of entrenchment allows Par- liament to add to individual
rights without excessive difficulty. Thus, race relations and sexual equality have
been established through simple, speedy procedures.
o Other examples of statutes which define the system of government are: The
Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 which establish the limitations to the powers of
the House of Lords; a series of Local Government Acts establish and control the
powers of local authorities; The Race Relations Acts establish equal rights for
members of all races; The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Acts of 1998-9
grant devolved powers to those countries; The Human Rights Act of 1999
incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British Law.
B. European law
o EU law is now superior to British law in many areas, for example, customs and
excise, freedom of movement, agricultural policy, environmental policy. The
principle of parliamentary sovereignty has been dramatically affected
because of Britain's membership of the EU.
o Some laws made in Europe are directly applicable in Britain and have to be
applied by British courts. In areas covered by the European treaties, the
British Parliament cannot pass laws which contradict European laws. In case
of dispute Britain must accept decisions of the European Court of Justice.
European legislation is initiated almost exclusively by the European Commission
with which the UK Parliament has no formal relationship and over which it
has no direct control and since the 1986 Single European Act - extended in
the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam - the use of qualified majority voting in the
Council of Ministers has reduced the areas in which any member state can veto
decisions at European level.
C. Conventions and the Customs of Parliament
o These are the 'unwritten' elements of the British constitution. Conventions are
`understandings, habits, or practices which are not laws but constitutional
ethics' (Dicey). All countries have conventions but Britain has more than
other countries and many extremely important aspects of the constitution are

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For example, the Monarch's powers and the
position of Prime Minister.…read more

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ECHR. When interpreting legislation, judges must ensure that the Act in
question comply with the ECHR so far as is possible.
o In interpreting the law, the courts have the key role of ensuring that
governments do not exceed their lawful powers. In 1995 the High Court held
that the Foreign Secretary had acted unlawfully in seeking to pay money to the
Pergau Dam project in Malaysia from the Overseas Development Fund, thereby
forcing the government to use Treasury money to fund the project.…read more


Old Sir

A concise and useful overview of sources of the UK constitution which offers a good starting point to students who are beginning their revision of this topic. Students might wish to develop their ability to discuss its strengths and weaknesses by comparing the Westminster model with other (codified) models.

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