What makes a constitution written or unwritten?

Have you ever wondered why constitution of some countries is called written whereas of other countries unwritten, despite both being well documented? This article will give answer to this question. With example of How Indian Constitution is a written constitution but British Constitution is not.

Starting with very basic definition of written and unwritten constitution

A written constitution is a constitution which has all its provisions codified in a single document whereas an unwritten constitution is a constitution whose provisions are not in a single document or can simply be referred as uncodified. But just this definition can't define these two kinds of constitution wholly since there are many laws which are not written but are part of a written constitution. Similarly an unwritten constitution doesn't imply it is not written anywhere- it is written but not in a single document, and on comparing constitutional document of various countries we can find that many countries with unwritten constitution actually have more documents than those having written constitution.

Differences between Written and Unwritten constitution

Written constitution

  • It comes into existence in a particular point of time- fixed time for e.g.- Indian constitution came into existence on 26 January 1950.

  • It is brought into existence by a special body for e.g.- In India by a constituent assembly

  • The Concept of "supremacy of constitution" in case of written constitution which can also be understood in simple words- that a parliament exists because constitution exists, so constitution is considered supreme and above all other institutions of the country.

  • In written constitution there are some laws which are ordinary laws (or inferior laws) and doesn't enjoy status like constitutional laws e.g. of few inferior laws in India- CrPc( code of criminal procedure), CPC( civil procedure code), NREGA(National rural employment guarantee act) e.t.c

  • A written constitution can either be rigid or flexible or a mixture of both. In some countries it is rigid while in some it is flexible for e.g. constitution of U.S.A is rigid while constitution of SriLanka is flexible. The Indian constitution is a mixture of both rigid and flexible.

  • A country with written constitution can be Unitary or federal e.g. India is federal( where power is distributed)

Unwritten constitution

  • It is a continuously evolving constitution with attached dates of new provisions and amendments with no fixed or particular date on which it came into existence.

  • There is no special body for making a constitution and the laws parliament makes become part of constitution. In fact, this kind of constitution is a result of constitutional development which took place with time.

  • In case of Unwritten constitution, "parliament is supreme" because constitution is emerged through parliament - for e.g. constitution of Britain.

  • In Unwritten constitution there is no distinction between any kind of laws, and no law is considered supreme or ordinary (inferior).

  • A unwritten constitution has to be flexible; it cannot be rigid since parliament has infinite power so there can't be mush restriction.

  • A country with unwritten constitution has to be unitary, this constitution can't be federal.

What makes Indian constitution a written and British constitution unwritten

Inspite of Indian Constitution having many similar points with British constitution and we adopted lot of things from their constitution, the Indian constitution is still called "written" whereas British constitution is "unwritten". Also these two constitutions have most of the differences mentioned in the above paragraph but one major difference among them is-

How Indian constitution came into existence?

Indian constitution was formulated by the Constituent Assembly which met on 13 Dec 1946 for the first time, in which specific persons were assigned specific tasks to deal with and then each and every point of constitution was discussed and analysed in detail before adopting it as a law, this analysing was done by various committees and after approval from all drafted by the drafting committee which was headed by B.R Ambedkar. It took to 2 years 11 months and 18 days in the whole procedure of formation of Indian constitution. And a copy of this constitution was given to all the members of constituent assembly.

How British constitution came into existence?

British Constitution evolved with time and its journey started when Bill of Rights (1689), which established the supremacy of Parliament over the Crown caused the forcible replacement of King James II (1685–88) by William III (1689–1702) and Mary (1689–94) in the Glorious Revolution (1688). After this, parliament become supreme, formulating laws and this process is still going till today thus their is no specific time in which British constitution came into existence as it is still evolving, and there is no specific book of British constitution.

Countries with written and unwritten constitution

The difference why some countries have written constitution while others unwritten constitution can be understood by the history of those countries, and how these countries came into existence. It's not the case with all the countries but with most of them, the seed of the way they adopted constitution lies in their history. For e.g.- countries like India, U.S.A, Srilanka etc, which were once colony of any other empire and got freedom at a certain moment of time, adopted a written constitution by making a codified single document for all the laws; whereas countries like United Kingdom, New Zealand etc, which were once monarchy, and thus evolved their parliamentary system with time and coordination with monarchy, made their constitution to be evolved in the same manner which is visible in the number of documents they have and thus it became an unwritten constitution.


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