Constitution Watch Content Series 5-2010



[18th November 2010]

Separation of Powers Part I

The Doctrine of Separation of Powers – its Values and Limitations


The doctrine of separation of powers was touched on in an earlier Constitution Watch.  It is one of the essential elements of the rule of law, because without a proper separation of powers the rule of law will be imperilled, but the doctrine has a wider application and this Constitution Watch will examine it in greater detail.  It will be seen that although the doctrine represents an ideal which cannot be put into practice absolutely, it does emphasise the need to provide adequate checks and balances within the governmental system.

Doctrine of Separation of Powers

In essence, the doctrine of separation of powers is that for a free and democratic society to exist there must be a clear separation between the three branches of government, namely:

·   The Executive, which is the branch that executes the business of government.  It comprises the President, Vice-Presidents and Ministers, the Public Service, the Defence Forces, the Police Force and other law-enforcement organisations.  All the administrative, law-enforcement and coercive organs of the State fall within the Executive Branch, making it potentially the most powerful of the three branches of government unless its powers are subject to limitations.  

·      The Legislature, which is the law-making branch.  In Zimbabwe it consists of the Senate and the House of Assembly.

·     The Judicial Branch, which interprets the law.  It comprises judicial officers and the courts over which they preside.  In Zimbabwe the courts are divided into superior courts, namely the Supreme Court and the High Court, and the lower courts, which are principally magistrates courts and customary-law courts.  There are also specialised courts such as the Administrative Court, the Labour Court and the Fiscal Appeal Court.

If one of these branches encroaches upon the functions of the others, so the doctrine goes, freedom and the rule of law are imperilled.  If, for example, the Executive (i.e. the President or a Minister) makes laws and enforces them, then we no longer have the rule of law but rule by a man or woman, and the governmental system will tend towards autocracy and tyranny. 

In short the doctrine states that, liberty and human rights can flourish only where each branch sticks to its proper role.

How Each Branch of Government is Appointed

Logically, the doctrine of separation of powers should extend to the appointment of the members of each branch.  For example, according to the strict doctrine of separation of powers the Legislature should not appoint members of the Executive [i.e. Parliament should not elect the President or the Prime Minister]; and for the same reason the Executive should not have a role in electing members of the Legislature.  Neither the Executive nor the Legislature should appoint members of the Judiciary, for if they do the Judiciary will lose its independence.  And it goes without saying that judges should not appoint the Executive — though that is what may have happened in the United States when the Supreme Court decided the result of the 2000 presidential election.

Who then, according to the doctrine of separation of powers, should appoint members to the three branches of government?  In all the principal draft constitutions produced so far — the Kariba draft, the NCA draft  and the Law Society draft — it is stated that all legal and political authority derives from the people, so logically the people should elect the President and the Prime Minister as well as all members of Parliament.  And judges and other judicial officers should also be directly elected by the people.

How Each Branch is Financed

It would be impractical to expect each branch of government to raise its own finances.  The financing of all the branches must therefore come from the central government fiscus, and may limit their independence because whichever branch controls the fiscus can starve the other branches of funds.  In order to maintain the independence of the different branches, the Constitution could make it obligatory for each branch to be provided with adequate funding to enable it to carry out its functions.

Limitations on the Separation of Powers

There is probably no country in the world in which the doctrine of separation of powers is applied strictly and absolutely.  There are not always clear dividing lines between administrative, legislative and judicial functions — jurists have wasted oceans of ink and mountains of paper in trying to define those terms precisely — and in a modern State there must be a great deal of co-operation and interaction between the Executive and the Legislature, in particular, if the State’s business is to be efficiently conducted.  In modern countries, therefore, there is always some overlapping of functions.  For example:

·    Legislation has become so far-reaching and complex that Parliament cannot enact all of it.  Acts of Parliament must leave details to be filled in by regulations made by other authorities, usually Ministers.  Hence the Executive branch must be given some law-making powers.  At present all subsidiary legislation must be laid before Parliament, but Parliament has no power to repeal it.  It would be closer to the ideal of separation of powers if Parliament did have such a power.

·   The role of government has expanded so greatly that many decisions which affect peoples’ lives must be made quickly, and some of these decisions require specialised knowledge which is not possessed by judges or magistrates.  Many of these decisions are made by administrative tribunals established by and answerable to Ministers.  Hence the Executive branch is increasingly given judicial powers.  This is not necessarily undesirable so long as the tribunal obey the basic standards of fairness laid down by the law and so long as the courts are able to review their decisions.

·   It is generally recognised that in a legal system such as ours, judges do not just interpret the law.  They develop and adapt the law to take account of changing circumstances, and in that way they actually make law.  Hence the judicial branch has some law-making or legislative powers, but this power should not go beyond refining and developing existing law.

·   In some countries the Head of State is elected by Parliament, not by the people.  This is usually the case where the Head of State is non-executive, but in South Africa the executive President is elected by the National Assembly.  While this violates the strict doctrine of separation of powers it has the advantage of ensuring that the Executive does not get too powerful and is ultimately answerable to Parliament.

·      Few modern constitutions provide for the direct election of judges and magistrates.  They are usually appointed, subject to safeguards to ensure their independence, by the Executive or the Legislative branch, or by both branches.

Because there cannot be a complete separation between the different branches of Government, the doctrine of separation of powers can best be defined as a governmental system of separated institutions sharing power fairly between them.  Relative powers of each branch should be balanced.

Value of the Doctrine of Separation of Powers

Even though the doctrine of separation of powers cannot be applied absolutely, it retains considerable value.

  • In the first place, it emphasises the need for a State to have strong independent institutions in order to check arbitrary rule by the Executive.  This is particularly important in a country such as Zimbabwe which does not have a long history of democratic rule.  The Executive will always try to increase its powers by encroaching on the functions of the other branches of Government, sometimes for the best of motives.  Without strong institutions to oppose it these encroachments by the Executive will continue until the other branches lose their power to check it.
  • Secondly, the doctrine provides a yardstick against which constitutional proposals can be assessed in order to determine whether or not there will be adequate checks and balances within the governmental system to ensure that individual rights are protected.

Separation of Powers Not the Only Test of a Good Constitution

As a test for determining whether a constitution or governmental system is good or bad, the doctrine of separation of powers must be applied with caution.  It is fair to say that constitutions which completely ignore the doctrine are usually bad ones – one of the branches of government will be found to overshadow the others or liable to do so.  But constitutions in which the doctrine is observed are not necessarily good ones.  If the doctrine is observed so strictly that the different branches do not co-operate with each other, there may be governmental gridlock.  And the doctrine has nothing to say about the nature of the powers that can be exercised by each of the branches within its own sphere.  If, for example, all the powers of the Executive are vested in one individual and there are no limits on his or her power, then the State will be a dictatorship or nearly so;  and if the Legislature, though completely independent, is not elected by universal suffrage, then the State will be undemocratic; and if judges, though completely independent and irremovable from office, are ignorant and corrupt, then there will be no rule of law.  So the doctrine of separation of powers has its limits in determining whether or not a State is well governed.  It is only one of several tests to be applied.

In the second part of this Constitution Watch we shall compare the three main constitutional proposals that have been put forward since 2000 – the  so-called Kariba draft constitution, the NCA draft and the Law Society’s draft — to see how far they provide for a separation of powers.


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