Written constitution is one of the types of constitution that has been adopted in most countries of the world. One of the reasons for this is because, it is easier and faster to consult or reference a written constitution. Since the constitution is contained in one single document, it is very easy for anyone to consult or make reference to the constitution as a whole.
It should be noted, however, that just as a written constitution has many advantages, it also has disadvantages. This is why there is still arguments amongst as to whether a written constitution is the best type of constitution or not.
In my view, the best type of constitution depends solely on the political nature of the state/country in question. Put in a different way, the best type of constitution for “Country A” may not be the best for “Country B“. It depends on the nature of politics and value of citizens of the country.
In this article, i will disclose the advantages and disadvantages of a written constitution. This is basically to aid researchers and legal scholars in their research works on the types of constitution. I enjoin you to read this topic carefully if you really want to grasp the information contained in it.
Meanwhile, before going to the crux of this article, i would like to explain, briefly, what a written constitution is, with examples of some of the countries that has a written constitution in the world today. So, what is a written constitution?
- The Rule in Smith v Selwyn: facts, issues and decision of the court
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- Exceptions to the rule in Adams v Lindsell
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Definition of a written constitution
A written constitution is a type of constitution that is contained in a single document. Here, the laws of the state are not written down on different documents, they are all compied in one single document called the constitution.
Corroborating this definition, Politics.co.uk defines a written constitution as a formal document defining the nature of the constitutional settlement, the rules that govern the political system and the rights of citizens and governments in a codified form. This definition also state that the rules are codified in a document known as the constitution. This is the key characteristic of a written constitution.
Below are some of the countries that have a written constitution in the world:
Advantages of a written constitution (Merits)
Below are the merits of a written constitution:
It can be easily consulted
One of the major advantages of a written constitution is the fact that it can be easily consulted. This is unlike an unwritten constitution because a written constitution is contained in one single document. Although, other laws may be incorporated into it by reference in its provisions.
Take for instance, in Nigeria there is the 1999 constitution which is the Supreme law. However, this law can make reference to other laws in Nigeria like the Land Use Act, National Youth Service Cops Act, Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act and so forth. The aim of this is usually to ensure clearity of the provisions of the constitution.
More so, a written constitution makes it very easy for citizens to make reference to the constitution as the only Supreme law of the land that should guide them but this will not be possible where the constitution is not documented in a single document.
It cannot be frivolously tampered with
Another advantage and reason why most countries prefer a written constitution to an unwritten constitution is because, it cannot be easily tempered with. Written constitution is usually rigid in nature because of its mode of amendment and it cannot be frivolously tampered with, although it can be amended when found necessary. It usually spell out the procedure for its amendment as may be necessary to meet the changing needs of the country.
This makes it difficult for dictators and tyrants leaders to change the constitution to whatever they want. In Nigeria, for instance, it is very difficult to tamper with the provisions of the constitution. In fact, it requires the consent of almost every member of the state for the constitution to the changed.
It is easy to understand the content of the constitution
Unlike an unwritten constitution where the rules are not contained in one document, it is often easier to interpret and understand the intention of the legislature (Law Making body) when the rules are contained in one document because reading all the sections of the constitution can help in interpretation of one section.
More so, It is simple to ascertain because it is found in one document and can be read and understood by the people to know their right and duties. It is easy for citizens to know when their rights have been breached, when the acts of government or public officials are unconstitutional, so that they can sue based on the provisions of the constitution.
It avoids dictatorship by rulers
Just like I explained in the second point, when there is a comprehensively written constitution, it is usually difficult for dictators to rule the state. It is easy to refer to it when there is dispute and it helps to prevent the arbitrary and dictorial tendencies of rulers since boundary of their powers are known and they can be challenged and stopped.
Written constitutions usually spell out the organs of government, their powers and duties and their relationship. This brings us to another advantage of a written constitution, which is that it reduces the clash of functions of the arms of government.
It reduces clash of functions of the arms of government
It reduces the incidence of friction between the various arms and organs of the government, since their powers and functions are clearly spelt out and limited by the constitution. In this way, a written constitution may help to ensure stability and also promote the principle of separation of powers amongst the organs of the government.
Take for instance, in Nigeria, the powers of the executive, legislature and executives are provided for in section 4, 5 and 6 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria respectively. By doing this, no organ of government will be in control of excessive powers.
Now that you have known the merits of a written constitution, it is important to also highlight the demerits of this type of constitution too. As I have stated before, a written constitution is not free from flaws. As we continue, i will discuss the disadvantages of a written constitution.
Disadvantages of a written constitution (Demerits)
Below are the demerits of a written constitution:
Difficult to amend
The fact that a written constitution is difficult to amend is both an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. Written constitution are mostly rigid, with cumbersome amendment procedure, which leads to the problem of how to easily amend it to make it suit changing needs and time.
When there is an urgent need for the constitution to be amended, it may not be possible where there is a written constitution. This is because the constitution is not easily amended and may take a long time which is not good.
It may not favour every part of the state
Where its provisions are inadequate, it may not favour some sections of the country, and it may lead to disaffection and violent outburst as it provisions cannot be quickly amended to address the grievances.
This is obviously the case in most African countries today. In Nigeria for instance, it is deemed that the Constitution of the country supports the Northerners more than the people in the south. This has indirectly contributed to the rivalries in the two regions. Why some people are crying that the constitution be amended, some comfortable with its provisions.
It lacks flexibility:
A written constitution is usually interpreted strictly. It does not allow for flexibility. Unless it is liberally interpreted by the courts and also timeously frequently amended in a spirit of give and take like the US constitution, such country may find itself in a strait Jacket as its rigid provisions will not meet present and future needs of the country.
It is submitted by legal scholars that the ammendment procedure of a written constitution should not be too rigid, but reasonable with a sprinkling of justifiable safeguards to guard against frivolous, unjust and selfish amendments.
It may encourage frequent litigation, as people can easily know when their rights have been breached:
Since the rights and obligations of the government are also contained in that single document known as the constitution, citizens will always know when their rights have been breached and they will always bring actions in the court. Thus, the court will be flooded with a lot of cases to handle.
Coupled with this, citizens can also sue the government to ensure that it performs its governmental duties. On one hand, this is a good feature of a written constitution. but on the other hand it is a disadvantage of a written constitution because that will lead to slow government activities and may also lead to the ineffectiveness of the government due to the fact that it has to answer to all the actions brought against it by citizens of the state.
Delay in government activities:
Frequently litigations leads to delays in government activities and it also presents the problem of interpretation of the provisions of the constitution among the judges, while the judges are liberal, visionary, forward looking and progressive, others may be conservative, timid or more executive than the executive in interpretating the constitution whereby slowing down the pace of legal reform and development of a country.
This has already been explained in the point above. In fact, the ineffectiveness of the government may be as a result of the too many suits brought against it by the citizens.
It is suitable for a heterogeneous state alone
A written constitution, with its rigid constitution is not suitable for every type of government. For instance, a unitary system of government, which is usually small in size and good for a homogeneous population needs a flexible and easily amenable constitution for quick decision making of government.
A written and rigid constitution is more suitable for a federal, multi-tier system of government, a diverse population with minorities and advantaged groups, a so forth in under to allay fear of misrule, marginalization and injustice.
I have highlighted some of the advantages (merits) and disadvantages (demerits) of a written constitution. As I have already stated, a written constitution is best suitable in a heterogeneous society. In most heterogeneous countries of the world, written constitution is used to bring about a uniform law in the state so as to promote unity and growth in the state.
This is where I will stop in today’s article. Note that from time to time, I will update this work with more relevant information to the topic. Meanwhile, if you still have questions or contributions to make on the merits and demerits of a written constitution, please share it with us using the comment section.