The Constitution Unit


What are checks and balances?

Explainer: What are checks and balances? The Constitution Unit. The remaining text repeats what is already on the page.

Checks and balances are the mechanisms which distribute power throughout a political system – preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. This principle is core to all modern democracies.

The words ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ are typically used together but refer to subtly different (though overlapping) things. Checks are the mechanisms which allow political institutions to limit one another's power by blocking, delaying or simply criticising decisions. Balances, meanwhile, ensure that a wide variety of views and interests are represented in the democratic process.

There is no single definitive list of checks and balances, but there are some key institutions which operate at the UK level as checks and balances on the executive.

The first is parliament which provides the core check on the executive. The House of Commons has the unique power to grant or withdraw confidence in the government. Both it and the House of Lords play a crucial role in scrutinising new laws, and in overseeing the broader activities of the executive. Checks and balances also operate in parliament itself, between the two chambers.

The courts are a second key institution, which provide a check by applying the law as made by parliament. The relationship between courts, parliament, and the executive is designed to uphold the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. The courts therefore interpret, but cannot overturn, primary legislation. In areas where parliament has less opportunity for oversight of the executive (e.g. secondary legislation and prerogative powers), the courts play a more significant role as a check on the executive.

The third such check is provided by impartial officials. Those working in the civil service act as a balance; they are required to be politically impartial, and act as a keeper of institutional memory, drawing on lessons from the successes or mistakes of previous governments. Another check is provided by regulators. Another check is provided by independent regulators, which foster good practice, and investigate and identify wrongdoing by those working in all parts of the system. 

The media and civil society provide the fourth key institutional check. The media scrutinises politicians and public officials, operating as a check not only on the executive but on the political system more widely. It also provides a balance by ensuring that a wide range of views are heard. Civil society also provides opportunities for broader groups within society to have input into the governing process, and acts as a check and balance by allowing for politicians’ actions and proposals to be scrutinised by expert groups outside government and parliament.

Checks and balances play a vital role in a modern democracy. They prevent power from being concentrated too much in one part of the governing system and help to avert the problems that can arise when decisions are taken without proper scrutiny or when high standards of behaviour are not enforced.

The executive has a particularly important role to play in safeguarding checks and balances by engaging with parliamentary scrutiny, behaving appropriately towards the courts and civil service and respecting regulators.