Most modern constitutions have a Declaration or Bill of Rights setting out fundamental rights and freedoms that are specially protected by the constitution. Declarations of Rights have a long history. English-speaking people regard their first as the Magna Carta of 1215, while the French look to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was adopted at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The practice of including a statement on rights in constitutions became prevalent after the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The first constitution in this country to have a declaration of rights was the short-lived 1961 Constitution, and thereafter all our subsequent constitutions have contained one.
Why have a Declaration or Bill of Rights?
The purpose of a Declaration or Bill of Rights is to protect the rights of citizens and ordinary people living in the country. Although generally these rights must not be overridden by the government, some have to be qualified. Rights cannot always be absolute – they may have to be limited to allow the government to govern effectively in the interests of all its citizens, and some have to be balanced with the rights of others. But it is important that any limitations on the rights that are protected by a Declaration or Bill of Rights should be spelt out. Hence a Declaration or Bill of Rights also has to set out clearly, unambiguously, specifically and not in general terms the ways in which a government may legitimately limit the rights of its citizens and how they are to be balanced with the rights of others.