The British Unwritten Constitution vs. The US Constitution

The U.S. Constitution is a written document.
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Anybody wanting to see the actual U.S. Constitution only needs to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Short of that, you easily can find a scanned copy of it on the Internet. The British Constitution is not a tangible object, as opposed to its U.S. counterpart. Their legal framework does not sit in a permanent, fixed location. Nor is it possible to scan and copy the entirety of the laws and traditions of the Constitution. A vast array of law books, treatises and speeches contain the wording of the British Constitution.

1 Partially Written

Many people believe the British have an unwritten constitution. A more apt description would be to say the instrument is partially written. In reality, the Constitution is a large collection of monarchical decrees, judicial decisions and written laws over the course of British history. Laws written by Parliament constitute the majority of the nation’s legal edifice. Important court pronouncements, known as common law, are another source of British legal tradition. Kings and queens also contribute to the Constitution through their decrees. British civil liberties have their base in the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, for example.

2 Codification

Codified constitutions are those with one central document. They also have mechanisms in place to make changes extremely difficult. Additionally, one institution, often a court, has the final say in how to interpret the document. As a compendium of various sources of law, the British Constitution is not codified. The American Constitution is a prime example of codified law.

3 Wholly Codified

The United States has a wholly codified constitution. Because it is one written document, the American Constitution is the sole authority on national law. All legal decisions use the written Constitution as their basis. All changes must undergo the rigid Amendment process, which includes ratification by three-fourths of the states. The Supreme Court holds the final say in whether actions of the other branches of government are within the bounds of the law.

4 Varying Interpretations

Regardless of whether a constitution is written, unwritten or codified, people have different opinions on how to interpret the law. These varying interpretations make the differences in how the documents are formed less stark. For example, although the United States has a codified, written constitution, Supreme Court justices ultimately decide the meaning of the document. Contemporary political and social concerns can influence these decisions, resulting in a legal framework that changes over time.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.