General Principles of Constitutional Law and the Institutions of the Constitution

Defining a constitution and the UK Constitution


  •       According to Professor J A G Griffith, “the constitution of the United Kingdom lives on, changing from day to day; for the constitution no more and no less than what happens. Everything that happens is constitutional, and if nothing happened that would be constitutional also”.


The functions and characteristics of the UK constitution


  •       In the UK, power is divided vertically between three branches of the state: the legislature, executive and judiciary.


Nature of the UK constitution


  •       Unlike other European countries, the UK Constitution is not written in one single document.
  •      The UK Constitution is partly written, partly unwritten; it is uncodified, extremely flexible.


Historical development and the sources of the UK constitution


  •       The sources of the UK constitution include Constitutional Conventions, Acts of Parliament, Case Law, EU Law/International Treaties.



The legal sources that are part of the UK constitution (Acts of Parliament and Case Law)


  • Magna Carta 1215
  • Bill of Rights 1688
  • European Communities Act 1972
  • The Devolution Acts
  • Constitutional Reform Act 2005


EU Law/International Treaties


  •       The UK is a dualist state (an international body that becomes national only and to the extent that is translated into such by national legislation).


Human Rights Act 1998


  •       This Act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms into national law.


The Institutions of the State


The Executive Branch


  • The executive has a statutory power to ‘fill in the gaps’ in statutes.
  • The executive can also exercise its ‘prerogative powers’.


The Legislative Branch


  • Parliament is the British legislative body and is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
  • The legislature produces legislation and scrutinises the actions of the executive.  


The Judicial Branch


  • The judicial branch involves the resolution of legal disputes.
  • The judiciary interprets the legislature and develops general legal principles.
  • The members of the judiciary have the power to decide what the law implies in different types of cases.


Relevant Case Law:


R (Miller) v The Prime Minister and Cherry v Advocate General for Scotland (2019) UKSC 41


R v Secretary of State for Transport Ex Parte Factortame (No 2) (1991) 1 AC 603


R (Jackson) v AG (2005) UKHL 56


Bradlaugh v Gosset (1884) 12 QBD 271


A v UK and Parliamentary Privilege (2002) ECHR 35373/97