The Citizen Handbook


Understanding Constitutions

Two Types of Constitutions

There are two basic types of constitutions. The first is a written (codified) constitution, which is contained in a single document and serves as the single source of constitutional law. The second type is an unwritten (un-codified) constitution, which is not contained in a single document but rather consists of several different sources that may be written or unwritten. Most countries in the world, including Kenya, have codified constitutions. Both historical and political factors determine how a country adopts its constitution. Codified constitutions find their legitimacy, and often longevity, in the way countries adopt them. Furthermore, changes to most codified constitutions require exceptional procedures. These procedures may be to:

  • convene a special constituent assembly;
  • hold a referendum process; or
  • create requirements so that it is more difficult for a legislature to amend a constitution than it is to pass a law.

Written Constitutions

Written (codified) constitutions normally include a ceremonial preamble, which provides the goals of the State, motivation for the constitution, and several articles containing the substantive provisions. Omitted from some codified constitutions, the preamble may also contain a reference to religion and/or to fundamental values of the nation such as liberty/freedom, democracy, or human rights.

Unwritten Constitutions

Unwritten (un-codified) constitutions often represent an ‘evolution of laws’ and pacts over time. Countries considered that have un-codified constitutions include Israel, Canada, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Countries with written constitutions may also have aspects of an unwritten constitution as part of its laws. In other words, a written constitution is not necessarily acomprehensive document of the values, principles, and rules that govern a country.

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