Uncodified constitution

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An uncodified constitution is a type of constitution where the fundamental rules often take the form of customs, usage, precedent and a variety of statutes and legal instruments.[1] An understanding of the Constitution is obtained through reading commentary by the judiciary, government committees or legal experts. In such a constitutional system, all these elements may be (or may not be) recognized by courts, legislators and the bureaucracy as binding upon government and limiting its powers. Such a framework is sometimes imprecisely called an "unwritten constitution"; however, all the elements of an uncodified constitution are typically written down in a variety of official documents, though not codified in a single document.

An uncodified constitution has the advantages of elasticity, adaptability and resilience, A. V. Dicey described the uncodified constitution as "the most flexible polity in existence."[2] A significant disadvantage, however, is that controversies may arise due to different understandings of the usages and customs that form the fundamental provisions of the constitution.[1]

A new condition or situation of government may be resolved by precedent or passing legislation.[1] Unlike a codified constitution, there are no special procedures for making a constitutional law and it will not be inherently superior to other legislation. A country with an uncodified constitution lacks a specific moment where the principles of its government were deliberately decided. Instead, these are allowed to evolve according to the political and social forces arising throughout its history.[3]

When viewed as a whole system, the difference between a codified and uncodified constitution is one of degree. Any codified constitution will be overlaid with supplementary legislation and customary practice after a period of time.[1] Conversely, customs and practices that have been observed for long periods in an uncodified manner may be added to the written constitution at various junctures, such as in the case of the two-term limit for presidents of the United States. This custom was observed for nearly a century and a half, unbroken, without any enforcement mechanism until it was ignored by Franklin Roosevelt, after which it was added to the written Constitution as mandatory de jure.

Current states[edit]

The following states can be considered to have uncodified constitutions.

Uncodified constitutions Form States that have this form of constitution
Fully uncodified San Marino San Marino
Israel Israel
Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia
Partially codified (in few documents) Canada Canada
China China
New Zealand New Zealand
United Kingdom United Kingdom


Although there are Constitution Acts,[4] important aspects of the constitutional system are uncodified. The preamble to the Constitution of Canada declares it to be "similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom" (which is uncodified).[4]

This applies at the federal level and to the provinces,[5] although each does have the power to modify or enact their own within their exclusive areas of responsibility. To date only British Columbia has enacted a codified provincial constitution (see Constitution of British Columbia), though the other provinces' roles and powers are spelled out in section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, and through amendments to it dealing with particular provinces such as the Manitoba Act and the Newfoundland Act.


Some Chinese academics including legal theorist Jiang Shigong have argued that China has both a written constitution and an unwritten constitution based on the comprehensive leadership of the Communist Party.[6]


The Israeli Declaration of Independence promised a constitution by 2 October 1948, but due to irreconcilable differences in the Knesset, no complete codified constitution has been written yet. However, there are several Basic Laws.

New Zealand[edit]

New Zealand has no single constitutional document.[7][8] It is sometimes referred to as an "unwritten constitution", although the New Zealand constitution is in fact an amalgamation of written and unwritten sources.[9][10]

The Constitution Act 1986 has a central role,[9] alongside a collection of other statutes, orders in Council, letters patent, decisions of the courts, principles of the Treaty of Waitangi,[7][11] and unwritten traditions and conventions.

San Marino[edit]

San Marino has several documents that make up its constitution, including some lasting centuries. These documents include six books of The Statues of 1600 and the Declarations of Citizen's Rights. It is the oldest surviving constitution in the world.

Saudi Arabia[edit]

Saudi Arabia has no legally binding written constitution.[12] In 1960, King Faisal declared the Quran, the religious text of Islam, to be the constitution. However, in 1992, the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia was adopted by royal decree.[13]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, there is no defining document that can be termed "the constitution". Because the political system evolved over time, rather than being changed suddenly in an event such as a revolution, collapse of government or overthrow of monarchy, it is continuously being defined by acts of Parliament and decisions of the courts. The closest the UK has come to a constitutional code has been the Treaty of Union 1707.

Due to the United Kingdom having an uncodified constitution, many acts have been added to the collection of constitutional statutes,[clarification needed], such as the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022. This means the United Kingdom's constitutional rules are not written in a single document.[14]

Former examples[edit]

By the late 19th century leading Finnish intellectuals—liberals and nationalists, and later, socialists as well—had come to consider Finland as a constitutional state in its own right in a mere real union with Russia. This notion clashed with emerging Russian nationalism and with Russian calls for a unitary state for Slavs only, which eventually came into conflict with Finnish separatism and constitutionalism in the form of "russification policies", which restricted Finland's extensive autonomy from 1899 onwards, excluding a brief interruption between 1905 and 1908, all the way to the February Revolution in 1917.
The Russian Provisional Government of 1917 eventually recognized the Finnish constitution, and after the October Revolution the Bolshevik government of the RSFSR recognized Finland's declaration of independence on New Year's Eve 1917.


  1. ^ a b c d Johari, J. C. (2006) New Comparative Government, Lotus Press, New Delhi, p. 167–169
  2. ^ A. V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (page 39)
  3. ^ Prabir Kumar De (2011) Comparative Politics, Dorling Kindersley, p. 59
  4. ^ a b Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, being The Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict., c. 3, and The Constitution Act, 1982, Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c. 11.
  5. ^ Ontario (Attorney General) v. OPSEU, [1987] 2 S.C.R. 2, 1987 CanLII 71 (SCC), Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  6. ^ Zhai, Han (2018). "The 'Invisible Constitution' seen Realistically: Visualising China's Unitary System". In Dixon, Rosalind; Stone, Adrienne (eds.). The Invisible Constitution in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press. p. 406. ISBN 9781108417570.
  7. ^ a b McDowell, Morag; Webb, Duncan (2002). The New Zealand Legal System (3rd ed.). LexisNexis Butterworths. p. 101. ISBN 0408716266.
  8. ^ Joseph, Philip (1989). "Foundations of the Constitution" (PDF). Canterbury Law Review. p. 72.
  9. ^ a b Eichbaum, Chris; Shaw, Richard (2005). Public Policy in New Zealand - Institutions, processes and outcomes. Pearson Education New Zealand. pp. 32–33. ISBN 1877258938.
  10. ^ Palmer, Matthew (20 June 2012). "Constitution - What is a constitution?". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  11. ^ Palmer, Matthew (2008). The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand's Law and Constitution. Victoria University of Wellington Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-86473-579-9.
  12. ^ Champion, Daryl (2003). The paradoxical kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the momentum of reform. Hurst & Company. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-85065-668-5.
  13. ^ Robbers, Gerhard (2007). Encyclopedia of world constitutions. Vol. 2. p. 791. ISBN 978-0-8160-6078-8.
  14. ^ King, A (2007). The British Constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 6.
  15. ^ Bull, Thomas; Sterzel, Fredrik (2020). Regeringsformen: en kommentar (4th ed.). Lund: Studentlitteratur. p. 52.
  16. ^ Govern d'Andorra. "History". The Embassy of Andorra to the Benelux, Denmark and Slovenia. Archived from the original on 20 July 2007. Retrieved 14 December 2010.