Features – Researching Primary Legislation of the United Kingdom

Stephen Young is a reference librarian at The Catholic University of America, Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library. Stephen has written extensively in the area of United Kingdom law, and has contributed a number of articles to LLRX.com.


For many law librarians the title of this article conjures up images of flipping through pages of Halsbury’s Statutes of England and Wales, or accessing the UK files on LexisNexis or Westlaw. While those sources are still very valid and useful, it is important to be aware that legislative research in the U.K. can mean so much more, just as legislative research in the United States often requires one to go beyond the United States Code and the resources of the two major online databases.

However, before I launch into descriptions of various resources for tracking and locating legislation it is worth spending a moment examining the deceptively simple title of this article, “Researching Primary Legislation of the United Kingdom.” In the U.K. the terms “primary” and “secondary” are frequently used to differentiate between two types of legislation, the legislation made by Parliament and the legislation delegated to ministerial bodies (what we, in the United States, would refer to as “Administrative Law”). Sometimes the term “delegated” is used to denote secondary legislation, a body of law largely comprised of Statutory Instruments, bylaws, and other rules and regulations. We should also not overlook the use of the term “United Kingdom” in the title. Since 1999 both Scotland and Northern Ireland have had legislative bodies capable of producing primary legislation for those regions. [1] Although Wales has a National Assembly, its powers under executive devolution are currently limited to producing only secondary legislation for the principality. The scope of this article is therefore researching the legislation produced by the United Kingdom Parliament for the entire country.

The Parliamentary Process

The process of a bill becoming an act of Parliament should not look too unfamiliar to law librarians in the United States. Bills may be introduced into either chamber of this bicameral institution, the House of Commons or the House of Lords. A bill may be a public, private or hybrid bill, terms that are used to help describe the scope of a bill. [2] A further distinction is made between “government” bills, those that receive the support of the majority party and constitute part of the government’s policy, and “private members” bills, those introduced by a backbencher. Full text copies of bills are available on the Parliament Web site. [3]

Once a bill has been introduced, commonly known as the First Reading, it then proceeds to a Second Reading, a Committee Stage, a Report Stage, and a Third Reading before being sent to the second chamber where it essentially repeats the process. [4] If a bill emerges from the second chamber it is referred back to the originating chamber where any amendments are considered. Once both houses agree on a version of the bill it is then presented to the Monarch for the Royal Assent. [5] Amendments to a bill are most often made in the Committee Stage, the Report Stage, and sometimes the Third Reading.

The key to tracking a bill through Parliament is The Weekly Information Bulletin. The Weekly Information Bulletin provides information on where in the Parliamentary process a bill is at any given time together with information on forthcoming business. Included with the bill’s status are the bill number(s) and the name of the person who introduced the bill. [6] If floor or committee debate is required the researcher can access this information using a resource who’s name is very familiar to law librarians, Hansard. [7] ( Hansard began publication in the early 1800s and became an official source of information in 1909. It is available for the period 1988-present on the Parliament Web site. The daily version of Hansard is loaded on the Web site at 8:00am GMT.) Hansard should be thought of as the Congressional Record of Parliamentary research, providing verbatim text of the proceedings in the chambers, including Prime Minister’s question time, and proceedings in standing committees.

Acts of Parliament

Invariably, when we need to locate legislative materials from the U.K. we are looking for bills that have survived the Parliamentary process and have become Acts of Parliament. The actual number of acts passed by Parliament can vary tremendously from one calendar year to the next, however it is rare for there to be less than 30 or more than 60. A bill becomes an act once it receives the Royal Assent, a procedure that has not been denied to a bill approved by Parliament in almost three centuries. [8] An act may be designated as either a “public general act” or a “local act” depending on the scope and impact of the legislation, however researchers are almost always attempting to locate public general acts rather than local acts.

Acts of Parliament are most readily available on the H.M.S.O. Web site, usually within 24 hours of publication in printed form. [9] This Web site contains public acts from 1988 to the present, and local acts from 1991 to the present. Acts are arranged by year and then listed both alphabetically and numerically. [10] Other electronic sources for public acts of Parliament include Westlaw and LexisNexis, however an important distinction between the coverage of the big two databases is that while Westlaw only provides coverage of “in force” statutes, LexisNexis also provides coverage of recently passed legislation that has not yet come into force. A recent search revealed that availability of statutes in both databases substantially lags behind the official H.M.S.O. Web site. [11] One other electronic source worth mentioning is BAILII, the free database for the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, which replicates the H.M.S.O. coverage of public statutes. [12] The following databases represent additional, electronic fee-based sources of U.K. legislation; Butterworth’s Law Direct, [13] Lawtel, and Justis.com.

Paper copies of acts are first published in “Queen’s Printer’s Copy” format, referred to in the United States as slip law format. These are first listed in The Daily List on the Stationery Office’s Web site where individual copies of acts may be purchased. They are later compiled in annual volumes entitled Public General Acts and Measures, which are also reprinted by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales as the Law Reports Statutes series. [14]

Although the length of this article does not allow for a close examination of the various elements of an act of Parliament, two features are worth highlighting due to their importance in the research process, the commencement and extent sections of an act. Both of these sections usually appear toward the end of an act and determine not only when the act or parts of the act come into force, but also where in the United Kingdom the act or parts of the act come into force. [15]

One final word on acts concerns an issue that perhaps causes the greatest confusion on this side of the Atlantic, the citation format of older acts. Prior to January 1, 1963, and the coming into force of the Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act of 1962, all acts were cited using the Parliamentary session of the regnal year(s) and chapter number. [16] The regnal year begins on the date of the monarch’s accession to the throne. Thus, for Queen Elizabeth II the date is February 6. Since it is often the case that the session of Parliament and the regnal year overlap it is very common to see citations to an act passed in a parliamentary session that spanned two regnal years. [17]

Statutory Compilations

There is little doubt that the one title that stands out in U.K. legislative research is Halsbury’s Statutes of England and Wales. Although not an official source of information it is still regarded as the most useable and complete source of statutory information in print. Now in its fourth edition, the set can be a little challenging to use due to its seemingly complex updating system. The 50 gray, base volumes are accompanied by a Tables and Index volume, an Annual Cumulative Supplement volume, a Noter-up Service binder, six Current Statutes Service binders, Destinations Tables, and two companion volumes described below. Users who are unsure as to how all the components of the set work together should consult the “How To Use” guide which is usually located in the front of the first Current Statutes Service binder. Unlike its American counterparts (USCA, USCS) Halsbury’s is a subject arrangement of the statutes and is not a codification of in force law. [18]

The official compilation of U.K. statutes, the equivalent of the USC, was Statutes in Force published by H.M.S.O. This subject arrangement of the statutes contained in a multi-volume looseleaf set suffered from two of the same problems encountered by its American counterpart; namely lack of timely updating and poor indexing. The set is no longer officially updated and is not widely available in the United States, although a couple of Washington, D.C. area libraries, including The Law Library of Congress, possess a copy. The Statutory Publications Office of the Lord Chancellor’s Department is currently producing an electronic replacement for Statutes in Force, entitled The Statute Law Database.

Indexes to statutes are available in a variety of sources, however the most commonly used indexes include the official Index to the Statutes and Chronological Table of Statutes. [19] The Index volume to Halsbury’s is also a very easy to use and readily available access point to the statutes, and benefits from being kept up to date on a regular basis.

Is It In Force?

Throughout this article reference has been made to in force legislation. Determining whether a piece of legislation has come into force is a large component of statutory research in the United Kingdom. As I have indicated above, many acts contain within them a commencement section which outlines when the act, either in whole or in part, comes into force. Usually, and particularly with larger, more complicated pieces of legislation, a combination of scenarios is employed to bring the act into force; sections may come into force upon the date the act receives the Royal Assent, sections may come into force on a pre-determined date in the future, or sections may come into force at a future date to be determined by a Minister of the Crown. [20]

The researcher is therefore required to make sure that the section of the statute they are researching, even though it has received the Royal Assent, has come into force. To assist with this process Halsbury’s has produced a companion publication to its Statutes of England and Wales simply entitled Is It In Force? This annual volume covers a 25-year span and is brought up to date with a monthly section within the Noter-Up binder of the main set. [21] It should also be mentioned that many of the online services only provide coverage of in force legislation and therefore sections of an act that have not achieved their commencement date are not included in the databases. [22]

Determining whether a section or sections of an act have been amended, substituted or repealed is most easily accomplished using Halsbury’s Statutes Citator, another of the companion volumes to the Statutes of England and Wales. This is also kept up to date with regular inserts in the Noter-up binder, however coverage is provided for acts extending back to 1236.

Historical Research

It is not unusual to be asked to locate copies of statutes that may be hundreds of years old and long since repealed or otherwise removed from the statute books. The two sets that immediately come to mind when researching older statutes are Statutes of the Realm and Statutes at Large. However, many researchers admit to being a little unsure as to the differences in coverage between the two sets.

Statutes of the Realm provides what is arguably the most authoritative collection of older statutes. Produced by the Record Commission, this 12-volume set covers the periods 1235 to 1713. The title of the second set, Statutes at Large, is not a title specific to one set of statutes but is actually a generic title applied to a variety of sets that appeared in the eighteenth century. Most of the sets under this title provide coverage of statutes promulgated between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries. [23] The most famous of these sets include “Ruffhead’s Edition of Statutes” and “Pickering’s Statutes at Large.” Needless to say there is much duplication in coverage between Statutes of the Realm and Statutes at Large, however the latter comes into its own for access to statutes published between 1714 and the end of the eighteenth century. Elizabeth Moys provides an excellent description of the various historical resources in Manual of Law Librarianship (2nd ed., 1987).


An article such as this can only begin to scratch the surface of performing research in U.K. primary legislation, however there are a number of more substantial sources that can be consulted. Among the best are Peter Clinch’s Using a Law Library (2nd ed., 2001), and Dane & Thomas’ How to Use a Law Library (4th ed., 2001). I also highly recommend the use of House of Commons Information Office Factsheets for any unanswered questions regarding the workings of Parliament. [24] It should come as no surprise to learn that the approach one takes to statutory research in the U.K. is very similar to the approach one takes to statutory research in the United States; a mixture of hard copy and online sources is often called for with a strong emphasis on using official and/or up to date resources.

End Notes

[1] Information on the devolution process for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales can be located in Noreen Burrows, Devolution (1999).

[2] An excellent glossary of terms is available on the Parliament Web site. The House of Commons Information Select Committee recently released a fascinating self-study (HC 1065) on the use of technology by Parliament.

[3]Public, Private and Hybrid bills for both chambers are available at http://www.parliament.uk/bills/bills.cfm. Bills are available in either pdf or html format.

[4] House of Commons Factsheet L1 “Parliamentary Stages of a Government Bill” provides an excellent overview of the various stages and procedures encountered by a bill in Parliament.

[5] For the purposes of this article this is a simplified description of the process. A more complete description can be found in Stephen Young, The Electronic Parliament: Resources for Tracking U.K. Legislation.

[6] A bill is assigned a number when it is introduced into the first chamber, however the number may change if substantive revisions or amendments are made. The bill number will also change when the bill is introduced into the second chamber.

[7] Hansard began publication in the early 1800’s and became an official source of information in 1909. It is available for the period 1988-present on the Parliament Web site. The daily version of Hansard is loaded on the Web site at 8:00am GMT.

[8] Queen Anne vetoed the Scottish Militia Bill in 1707.

[9] Her Majesty’s Stationery Office oversees the printing and publication of all U.K. legislation.

[10] Once an act receives the Royal Assent it is assigned a sequential chapter number for that calendar year.

[11] Based on searches performed over a three week period in August, 2002 I discovered that acts that had received the Royal Assent since late March 2002 were not available on either Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis.

[12] BAILII, a registered public trust in the U.K., began with the assistance of AustLII (the Australasian Legal Information Institute) to supply primary legal materials for the U.K. and Ireland.

[13] The site includes a bill tracking services as well as coverage of statutes and a useful “Is It In Force” feature.

[14] The ICLR version of the statutes is provided in Royal Octavo size, whereas the H.M.S.O. has recently published statutes only in A4 size.

[15] If an act contains no provision for commencement and/or extent it is presumed that the act will come into force on the date it receives the Royal Assent and/or will apply throughout the United Kingdom.

[16] Since 1/1/1963 all acts of Parliament are cited using their calendar year and chapter number (e.g., The Homelessness Act 2002, c.7)

[17] A far more complete and understandable explanation of regnal years is provided by Peter Clinch in Using a Law Library (2nd ed., 2001) at 47.

[18] The Law Commission is working on various projects aimed at codifying certain areas of law such as criminal and family law. More information on the work of the Commission is available at http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/.

[19] Publication of The Index to the Statutes is “in suspension” according to the entry on the Stationery Office’s Web site. The most recent edition available is therefore the two-volume edition published in 1992, which covers 1235-1990. The Chronological Table of Statutes was most recently published in 2001 and covers 1235-1999.

[20] This last method requires the making of a commencement order, a form of secondary legislation.

[21] An online version of this publication is available on Butterworth’s Legislation Direct.

[22] This is particularly true of Westlaw, which only provides coverage of in force legislation.

[23] During the Interregnum (1642-1660) the country was governed as a Commonwealth. Acts issued by Parliament during this time are available in a three-volume set entitled Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum.

[24] House of Commons Information Office Factsheets are available on a wide range of issues. I have also had success e-mailing the Information Office.

This article first appeared in 46 Law Library Lights no.2 (Winter 2002)

Posted in: Features, International Legal Research