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Denmark’s constitutional act

The foundation of Danish society!

Photographs: iStock

Text: Mariano Anthony Davies

San Marino is proclaimed as having the oldest surviving constitution. However, officially, the oldest functional constitution in the world is the Constitution of the United States of America, which was ratified on 21 June 1788. The US Constitution contains seven articles, a preamble and a closing endorsement. Although aspects of Magna Carta still exist in British law, the English Great Charter of English liberties granted under pressure by King John on June 15, 1215 is not a fully functional constitution.

Denmark’s Constitution was ratified on 5 June in 1849 and significantly amended in 1953. It has been proclaimed as the fifth oldest functional constitution and like most constitutions, this one lays out the basis of Denmark’s government and explains the rights of citizens, including freedoms of religion and speech. It is the constitution of a country with a Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy.

The original constitution that was amended and ratified on 5 June 1953 contains 89 specific sections, whereas the original constitution had 100 sections. The 89 sections are split into 11 parts, which continue to be the framework of Danish law. However, in 2009 a “Succession to the Throne” amendment was agreed by the Danish Parliament and written into the existing Constitution of 1953.

"The constitution that was amended and ratified on 5 June 1953 contains 89 specific sections, whereas the original constitution had 100 sections."

Revisions to the original 1849 text were carried out in 1866, 1915, 1920 and then in 1953. For example, women in Denmark received the right to vote as a result of the 1915 revision.

Although Constitution Day is not a public holiday in Denmark, there is a tradition that production and other private companies either shut down for the whole day or for half a day. It is a day when families tend to gather together and politically active individuals and workers unions carry out political rallies and attend political events to listen to the views of their political representatives.

These are usually very social and peaceful picnic events throughout the country or family occasions and an important day to fly the Danish flag for the many Danes with flag poles.

The Danish Constitution and the human rights that it enshrines are accorded special status and are regarded as the supreme source of Danish law because they were adopted according to a special procedure (Section 88 of the Constitutional Act). Thus, the rights guaranteed in the Constitution take precedence over any other conflicting statute law or case law.

It guarantees various human rights and related rights, which are primarily civil and political rights, such as: • Freedom of Expression (Section 77) • Freedom of Association (Section 78) • Freedom of assembly (Section 79) All changes to the Danish Constitution require a majority in the Danish Parliament twice - both before and after a general election. In addition, changes must pass a referendum, where at least 40% of all eligible voters must support the change.

The Danish concept of democracy builds on a strong Parliament and reluctant courts, which are careful not to act in a ‘political’ manner. Regarding constitutional amendments, the Danish Constitution has not undergone any changes in relation to EU membership. This is partly attributed to the difficult amendment procedure involving two (different) referendums and a high turnout requirement. In practice, Danish parliamentary control over Government in EU decision-making has widely come to be regarded as one of the strongest in Europe.

Denmark does not have a strong tradition of codifying general principles of law in the Constitution. The general principles of law are often unwritten principles which are enforced by the courts and mentioned in legal literature and/or underlying considerations, presumptions and values which implicitly lie behind constitutional and legislative provisions.

Danish courts take a rather pragmatic approach, which means that they often apply legal principles without making direct references to them and without specifying whether the principles have constitutional rank.

In the Danish Constitution, the principle of equality as an abstract norm is not codified. Nevertheless, the protection of equality is reflected in a number of specific constitutional provisions, such as Article 70 on protection against discrimination based on religion or origin in relation to individual civil and political rights.

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