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An uncodified constitution is a type of constitution where the fundamental rules often take the form of customs, usage, precedent and a variety of statutes and legal instruments.[1] An understanding of the constitution is obtained through reading commentary by the judiciary, government committees or legal experts. In such a constitutional system, all these elements may be (or may not be) recognized by courts, legislators and the bureaucracy as binding upon government and limiting its powers. Such a framework is sometimes imprecisely called an "unwritten constitution"; however, all the elements of an uncodified constitution are typically written down in a variety of official documents, though not codified in a single document.

An uncodified constitution has the advantages of elasticity, adaptability and resilience. A significant disadvantage, however, is that controversies may arise due to different understandings of the usages and customs which form the fundamental provisions of the constitution.[1]

A new condition or situation of government may be resolved by precedent or passing legislation.[1] Unlike a codified constitution, there are no special procedures for making a constitutional law and it will not be inherently superior to other legislation. A country with an uncodified constitution lacks a specific moment where the principles of its government were deliberately decided. Instead, these are allowed to evolve according to the political and social forces arising throughout its history.[2]

When viewed as a whole system, the difference between a codified and uncodified constitution is one of degree. Any codified constitution will be overlaid with supplementary legislation and customary practice after a period of time.[1]

Current examples

The following states can be considered to have an uncodified constitution:

Former examples

  • Constitution of the Roman Republic, made up of the Twelve Tables and other statutes.
  • Hungary had an uncodified constitution prior to 1949.
  • The Constitution of the Grand Principality of Finland was never codified. The Emperor of Russia, who also served from 1809 to 1917 as Grand Prince of Finland, never specifically recognized the Constitution as that of a separate and autonomous Finland, in spite of the fact that that Constitution largely dictated the relationship between Finland and the Russian Empire throughout the Russian era in Finland. By the late 19th century leading Finnish intellectuals—liberals and nationalists, and later, socialists as well—had come to consider Finland as a constitutional state in its own right in a mere real union with Russia. This notion clashed with emerging Russian nationalism and with Russian calls for a unitary state for Slavs only, which eventually came into conflict with Finnish separatism and constitutionalism in the form of "russification policies", which restricted Finland's extensive autonomy from 1899 onwards, excluding a brief interruption between 1905 and 1908, all the way to the February Revolution in 1917. The Russian Provisional Government of 1917 eventually recognized the Finnish constitution, and after the October Revolution the Bolshevik government of the RSFSR recognized Finland's declaration of independence on New Year's Eve 1917.
  • The French Third Republic had an uncodified constitution. Several constitutional texts were adopted in the few years after the proclamation of the Republic in 1870 but in practice the institutions did not follow them, and the true organization of powers was made through customs. Despite this, it remains as of 2018 the longest lasting French constitution since the Revolution of 1789.
  • Queensland before 2001. (See Constitution of Queensland.)
  • Oman prior to 1996
  • Libya between 1969 and 1975
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