Parlimentary Sovereignty

The concept of parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament is the supreme legal authority in the UK.

In many countries, for example, the USA, the legislature is limited by the Constitution in the laws it can or cannot make.  The U.S. Supreme Court can declare laws passed by the legislature to be unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

The traditional view in the UK is that Parliament is not subject to any legal limitation and that the UK courts have no power to declare laws duly passed by Parliament invalid.

According to A.V. Dicey (Law of the Constitution, 1885), "In theory Parliament has total power.  It is sovereign."  Dicey's view of parliamentary sovereignty consisted of four factors:

  1. Parliament is competent to pass laws on any subject;
  2. Parliament's laws can regulate the activities of anyone, anywhere;
  3. Parliament cannot bind its successors as to the content, manner and form of subsequent legislation; and
  4. Laws passed by Parliament cannot be challenged by the courts.


However, Parliament may in practice limit its own sovereignty.  Two examples are:

1.  The European Communities Act 1972

The ECA 1972 gave effect to British entry to the European Union.  Directly applicable EU Law now applies in the UK and takes precedence over national law.

In the Factortame Case (1990) the European Court of Justice held that English courts could not apply the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, designed to protect British fishermen, because it contravened the Treaty of Rome 1957.

2.  The Human Rights Act 1998

See separate handout issued in class.  Useful links can be found on the:

Human Rights Page