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In most societies, the basic structure and role of a parliament derives from a constitution. Whether written or unwritten, constitutions delineate aspects of several key parliamentary characteristics. These include:

  • The organisation of parliament: Constitutions often specify whether a parliament will be unicameral or bicameral, place limitations on the number of parliamentarians that may constitute a parliament or the size of the districts they represent, and settle other basic organisational issues, such as how the parliamentary administration is to be selected;
  • How the parliament carries out its basic functions: The circumstances under which a parliamentarian may propose legislation and which oversight functions parliamentarians are able to employ are oftentimes constitutionally mandated; and
  • The extent of the parliament’s powers and independence vis-a-vis the other political institutions:  Most importantly, constitutions define whether the system will be presidential or parliamentary, which branch will set the legislative agenda, whether the legislature plays a role in appointing, approving, or electing members of the judiciary, and other issues that define the relationships between the branches of government.

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Irrespective of the amount of detail prescribed by a constitution for the attributes of a parliament, other laws must be adopted to further define an assembly’s legal framework. In some instances, this may include a separate law to delineate the electoral system, the parliament’s role in the budget process, access to information, and many other more specific issues affecting how parliaments function. Parliaments also adopt internal rules, such as Rules of Procedure, that dictate how the parliament conducts its daily activities (how often it meets, how to select parliamentary leaders, etc.) and with which instruments (how many committees there will be, whether subcommittees can be formed, who is to administer them, etc.).

A parliament’s institutional and legal framework has a profound effect on its short- and long-term functioning. Structural factors such as power-sharing arrangements and electoral design shape the political incentives for parliamentarians to undertake their work.

The legal framework of a parliament also has a significant impact on the institution’s role in legislative and democratic governance processes.The rules that govern the work of parlament have a major impact on whether or not the government can pass the laws of a country and whether or not the opposition and the public see the institution as neutral and providing space for debate.

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