1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bill of Rights

BILL OF RIGHTS, an important statute in English constitutional history. On the 13th of February 1689 the Declaration of Right, a document drawn up by a committee of the commons, and embodying the fundamental principles of the constitution, was delivered by the lords and commons to the prince and princess of Orange, afterwards William III. and Mary. In December 1689 the rights claimed by the declaration were enacted with some alterations by the Bill of Rights, next to Magna Carta the greatest landmark in the constitutional history of England and the nearest approach to the written constitutions of other countries. The act (the full name of which is An Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and settling the Succession of the Crown), after reciting the unconstitutional proceedings of James II., the abdication of that king, the consequent vacancy of the crown, and the summons of the convention parliament, declared, on the part of the lords and commons, “for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties”—

“(1) That the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of parliament is illegal. (2) That the pretended power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal. (3) That the commission for erecting the late court of commissioners for ecclesiastical causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious. (4) That levying money for or to the use of the crown, by pretence of prerogative, without grant of parliament, for longer time or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal. (5) That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal. (6) That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament, is against law. (7) That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law. (8) That elections of members of parliament ought to be free. (9) That the freedom of speech, and debates or proceedings in parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament. (10) That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. (11) That jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders. (12) That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void. (13) And that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, parliament ought to be held frequently. And they do claim, demand and insist upon all and singular the premises, as their undoubted rights and liberties.”

The further provisions of the act were concerned with the settlement of the crown upon the prince and princess of Orange, with the exception of § 12, which negatived the right of dispensation by non obstante[1] to or of any statute or any part thereof, unless a dispensation be allowed in the statute itself or by bill or bills to be passed during the then session of parliament.

It is to be noticed that the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights introduced no new principle into the English constitution; it was merely a declaration of the law as it stood. In the United States, the main provisions of the Bill of Rights, so far as they are applicable, have been adopted both in the constitution of the United States and in the state constitutions.

  1. Non obstante (notwithstanding) means a licence from the crown to do that which could not be lawfully done without it.