Due to its uncodified nature, the UK constitution is made up of numerous sources. Some, like Works of Authority, are of lesser importance. However, Statute Law stands out as the most important source of the constitution. The reason for this is that Parliament is sovereign. Therefore, any law passed by Parliament (a Statute Law) takes precedence over all other sources of the constitution.
When the Constitution is amended in the UK it is primarily done via Statute Law. Prominent examples of this are the Human Rights Act (1998) and the devolution acts of 1998. Increasingly, other sources of the UK Constitution are also being codified. For example, it was traditionally one of the Prime Minister’s Royal Prerogative Powers to call an election at a time of their choosing. However, the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011) saw the power to call early elections being given exclusively to Parliament.
All Statute Laws are passed in the same way. In Britain, unlike the the USA, there is no fundamental or constitutional law. For a Statute Law to be passed it has to be agreed by all three parts of Parliament: the Commons, The Lords and, via the granting of Royal Assent, the Crown-in-Parliament.
In both the House of Commons and House of Lords a Bill goes through the same legislative stages:
First Reading – The bill is outlined, usually without debate and a date is set for its second reading
Second Reading – The bill is outlined and sometimes debated
Committee Stage – A Public Bill Committee considers the bill and suggests amendments
Report Stage – The House considers the report of the Public Bill Committee and debates and votes on amendments.
Third Reading – The bill is debated and a vote is held on the bill.
When the bill is agreed by both houses it is given Royal Assent by the monarch. This final stage, unlike a Presidential Veto in the United States, is a formality. The last time a monarch refused to give Royal Assent to a bill was in 1707 when Queen Anne refused her assent to a bill to form a Scottish Militia. She was advised by her ministers that the militia might be disloyal and so withheld her consent. If the monarch were to refuse to give Royal Assent to a properly passed bill today it would lead to a constitutional crisis that would almost certainly see the downfall of the monarchy.
The only fundamental change to this process is if the House of Commons invokes the Parliament Act. Before 1911 the House of Lords was able to block legislation. However, the Parliament Act (1911) limited the House of Lords to being able to delay legislation for two years and the Parliament Act (1949) reduced this to being able to delay legislation for one year. The Parliament Acts mean that if the House of Commons passes the same bill for two parliamentary sessions in a row they can choose to by-pass the House of Lords. This is unusual, with the Parliament Act only having been enacted four times in the entirety of its existence.
In the United States a statute law can be overturned by the courts if it is found to be unconstitutional. In the UK there is no mechanism for a Statute Law to be overturned by any body outside of Parliament. The courts may make recommendations about a bill, for example stating that they do not think it complies with the Human Rights Act (1998), however, it is down to Parliament alone as to whether to amend the legislation in question. A number of important points elucidate the fact that parliament is sovereign in creating legislation:
– No Parliament can bind its successor: This key doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty means that just as Parliament can pass any law that it wants, it can also repeal (reverse) any previous statute law that it wants.
– The Doctrine of Implied Repeal – If any element of a law contradicts an existing Statute Law the provision in the newer law automatically replaces the older one.
Statute Law, despite its importance, relies heavily on Common Law to ‘fill the gaps’. It is impossible for Parliament to consider all eventualities and implications when creating a new law – it is therefore left to judges to create common law through their judgements.
However, sometimes Statute Law can be used to clear up an area of Common Law that has become hazy. A good example of this is in the issue of Same-Sex Marriage. For a number of years judges had considered cases where same-sex couples wished to have the right to marry. The most famous case was Wilkinson vs. Kitzinger in 2006 where judges ruled that a same-sex couple had the right to a civil partnership, but not a marriage. This was clearly an issue which society wanted to see a change and so, in 2013, Parliament stepped in to create the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act.
Despite being one of many sources, Statute Law is the most important source of the UK Constitution. To summarise, the reasons for this are:
- Statute Law is the mechanism via which major constitutional reforms are made.
- As a result of Parliamentary Sovereignty, there is no mechanism via which a Statute Law can be overturned other than its repeal by Parliament.
- Statute Law is used to clear up inconsistencies or areas of unclarity in Common Law.