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Our Constitution

Our supreme legislative document

A good constitution cannot alone make a nation’s happiness. A bad one can alone make its unhappiness.{a}

All of our local laws are made under the authority of St Helena’s Constitution

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SEE ALSO: This page only discusses our most recent Constitutions. Previous Constitutions are discussed on our page Government on St Helena.

What it is

A constitution is an agreement between a people and their Government about how they want to be governed, formulated as a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is administered{b}. These rules together make up (i.e. ‘constitute’) what the entity is. When these principles are written down into a single document or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to embody a written constitution; if they are written down in a single comprehensive document, it is said to embody a codified constitution.

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St Helena is, officially, an internally self-governing British Overseas Territory{1}. It forms part of a group comprising St Helena itself along with Ascension Island and the Tristan da Cunha group of Islands.

St Helena has its own legislature, empowered to make laws known as Ordinances. Many of the Ordinances enable an authority (usually the ‘Governor-in-Council’) to make detailed ‘secondary legislation’ in the form of Rules, Regulations, or Orders. These Ordinances, and their associated secondary legislation, are available on the Government of St Helena website.

All of these local laws are made under the authority of St Helena’s Constitution, which is found in an Order in Council made under the Saint Helena Act, 1833. This is because, at present, ultimate legislative and executive authority for the Overseas Territories resides in the British Crown. The Constitution provides for a Legislature, an Executive, and a Judiciary; with specific measures to protect the independence of the Judiciary from the other two organs of Government.

The Constitution sets out how St Helena is governed. This is described in detail on our page Government on St Helena so is not repeated here.

The Constitution also provides for a Supreme Court and a Court of Appeal, and allows for local laws to create subordinate courts. The Court of Appeal is to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London. More information can be found on the Government of St Helena website.

Our Constitution is often referred to as our ‘supreme legislative document’ because any Ordinance that is found to be incompatible with it is required to be changed{2}.

Is it really a ‘Constitution’?

Some claim that what St Helena calls a ‘Constitution’ is not strictly worthy of the name, arguing that the document does not fully represent the will of the people of St Helena because, whatever input may or may not be taken from Saints, the document is actually drawn up in London, approved by the UK Privy Council and is frequently not formally approved by St Helena. They therefore conclude that the document is not, as the United Nations requires, an agreement between a people and their Government about how they want to be governed.

However, the document is always formally referenced as the ‘Constitution of St Helena’ and that term is used to describe it throughout Saint Helena Island Info.

Changes Needed

While the 2009 Constitution was a definite improvement on the ones that preceded it - taking, as it did, the island closer to true democracy - Saint Helena Island Info was advised that it did have some issues that should have been addressed when drawing up the next Constitution. These were:

  1. To provide for a truly multicultural island and to be consistent with Section 5, all references to any specific religion should be removed, e.g. in the Preamble, items (c) and (k).

  2. Section 36, which defines how the Executive Council is created, needs to be revised to define a new, democratic way of selecting the island’s most powerful body.

  3. The Oaths of Office taken by elected representatives (Section 54) need revision to ensure that necessary secrecy is balanced with openness and transparency.

  4. The Public Accounts Committee should provide independent oversight of the Government of St Helena and hence should explicitly not comprise any members of Legislative Council/Executive Council.

  5. The role of the Complaints Commissioner (Section 113) should be a permanent one and should be a person democratically elected to the role and completely independent of the Government of St Helena.

  6. In Part 2, the role of the island’s Equality & Human Rights Commission as a monitoring body for the delivery of the rights set out in the document should be explicitly defined.

  7. The Constitution should explicitly require the creation of Freedom of Information and Data Protection Ordinance(s).

  8. A timetable should be defined within which all existing Ordinances must be reviewed to ensure compatibility with the new Constitution and, if necessary, changed.

In addition, if the intention is to complete the island’s progress towards being a democracy{3} the following also needed to change:

  1. Section 14 (powers of the sovereign) should be removed.

  2. The role of the Governor should either be abolished or reduced to a purely ceremonial one and all the powers assigned to the Governor should be reallocated. More specifically:

    • The responsibilities of the Governor (Section 44) should be allocated to democratically elected bodies.

    • The Governor should not be able to intervene in the composition of Executive Council and in who advises it (Sections 35, 38 and 40).

    • The Governor should not appoint committees (Section 58), Boards, etc and should not (Section 59) make rules for their operation.

    • The Governor should never be involved with Legislative Council (Section 62) and should not be required to authorise (and hence able to veto) laws passed by it.

    • Oaths should not be taken to the Governor, they should be made in public (in a similar way to the Oath taken by an elected President of the United States of America).

In addition to this list the Equality & Human Rights Commission compiled a more comprehensive report on the changes required.

Clearly, in the process of agreeing a new Constitution (see below) other issues would be raised by the people of St Helena.

The 2021 changes addressed almost none of these issues (see the Amendment Order). It was drawn up to make the minimal changes needed to facilitate the ‘Ministerial Form of Government’ and all other potential changes were ignored. Hence the 2021 Constitution still has almost all of the issues raised above, and these therefore remain to be addressed in some future Constitution.

How is our Constitution revised?

As stated above, A Constitution is an agreement between a people and their Government about how they want to be governed. The United Nations has created a useful document describing the correct way for any entity to create or revise a Constitution. You can download a copy of this document.

However the process for revising the Constitution of St Helena has always been rather different. The UK regards our Constitution as a UK legal document, decided upon by the UK after (notional) consultation with the people of St Helena but not decided by them. Looking at the two most recent examples:

Read More

Below: Read it for yourselfArticle: Press Release - New Constitution

Read it for yourself

…every person in St Helena is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, has the right, without distinction of any kind, such as sex, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, age, disability, birth or other status, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following:
(a) life, liberty, security of the person and the protection of the law;
(b) freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association;
(c) protection for their private and family life, the privacy of their home and other property; and
(d) protection from deprivation of property save in the public interest and on payment of fair compensation…

The full text of our 2009 Constitution can be read here{4}.

Article: Press Release - New Constitution (2009)

Issued by the Government of St Helena, September 2009{5}

1st September 2009 was an historic day for St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha since the new Constitution came into force. This follows many months of discussion and a number of public consultation meetings.

The new Constitution replaces the outdated Constitution of 1988, and includes a bill of rights. This will allow people to complain in the local courts on human rights issues, instead of having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Among other changes under the new Constitution, the Governor’s power has been limited in a number of areas as have the powers of senior officials and the Administration, while more power has been entrusted to elected Councillors.

Symbolically, the Governor will no longer hold the title ‘Commander in Chief’.

Public Relations/Information Office
Office of the Chief Secretary,
2nd September 2009


{a} Guy Carcassonne (Page is in French; use Google Translate™){b} United Nations


{1} Though, in practice, at present it is far from ‘self-governing’, as explained on this page and on our page Government on St Helena.{2} Though there does not seem to be any timetable for how quickly such a change must be made.{3} According to the United Nations, self-determination is a Human Right.{4} At the time of writing the 2021 Constitution has still not been published.{5} @@RepDis@@