Our Constitution

Our supreme legislative document

A good constitution cannot alone make a nation’s happiness. A bad one can alone make its unhappiness.
Guy Carcassonne{1}


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

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Below: What it isChanges NeededHow is our Constitution revised?Read More

SEE ALSO: This page only discusses our current Constitution. Previous Constitutions are discussed on our Government page.

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{a}. 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.

St Helena flag

St Helena is, officially, an internally self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom{2}. 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 British 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:

More on our Government page.

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{3}.

Changes Needed

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

  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{4} the following also need 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 has compiled a more comprehensive report on the changes required.

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

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. In the past the process for revising the Constitution of St Helena has been rather different.

The 2009 Constitution - the subject of this page - was not implemented by the process defined by the United Nations. Like all the Constitutions that preceded it, it was imposed on the people of St Helena by the Governor (in this case, Governor Gurr) with no democratic process whatsoever.

If the recommendations of the Sarkin Report into Governance Reform, published on 4th December 2019, are to be implemented a revision to the Constitution would be necessary. However is seems that Governor Rushbrook does not intend to consider addressing any of the issues detailed above, prefering instead to minimise the changes made. The people of St Helena were not consulted on the Governor’s decision. This was referenced by the island’s Equality & Human Rights Commission in an open letter to Councillors on 10th March.

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 his or her private and family life, the privacy of his or her 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 Constitution can be read here.

Article: Press Release - New Constitution

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} United Nations

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{1} Page in French; use Google Translate™ for English.{2} Though, in practice, at present it is far from ‘self-governing’, as explained on this page and on the page Government.{3} Though there does not seem to be any timetable for how quickly such a change must be made.{4} According to the United Nations, self-determination is a Human Right.{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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