Act of Parliament

Statutory law of the United Kingdom

In short

The statuary laws of the United Kingdom. Acts of Parliament are written and approved by the House of Commons and Lords, enacted by the Sovereign and enforced by the courts.

How do you make an Act of Parliament?

Only Parliament has the power to create laws, so first get elected to the House of Commons or appointed to the House of Lords.

An MP or Lord tables a proposed Act before Parliament, called a Bill, that must perform the full bill process before becoming enacted into law. Around 40 Acts of Parliament are passed in each Parliamentary Session.

How do you amend or repeal of an Act of Parliament?

By tabling another Act of Parliament.

The majority of Acts of Parliament modify existing Acts of Parliament, rather than creating new standalone legislation. This allows legislation to be maintained within the original Act, rather than scattered across multiple Acts.

What if I want to make a minor change to a law, does Parliament create a new Act for each and every change?

Not necessarily. An Act of Parliament may provide the Government with the power to issue and amend legislation under the Act, called Secondary (or Delegated) Legislation. Around 3,000 items of Secondary Legislation are enacted in each Session.

This power to create Secondary Legislation is often phrased as 'The Secretary of State may by order...' or 'Her Majesty may by Order in Council' within the 'primary' Act. Any Secondary Legislation will cite the section of the Act that allows it to be enacted.

Secondary Legislation can be very extensive. The detailed body of UK aviation law is contained entirely within a piece of Secondary Legislation called the Air Navigation Order, issued under the authority of Section 60 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 .

Acts can provide 'Henry VIII' powers, to amend an Act of Parliament itself, without going through the Parliamentary process.

For example, the original Climate Change Act 2008 stated in Section 1(1):

It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.

However, Section 2 of the Act provides that:

(1)The Secretary of State may by order—

(a) amend the percentage specified in section 1(1);

(b) amend section 1 to provide for a different year to be the baseline year.

In 2019, the Government used this power to issue the The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019, a piece of Secondary Legislation which utilised the powers of Section 2, to amend the original target of 80% to one of 100%.

The power to utilise Secondary Legislation to create and modify law with lesser Parliamentary scrutiny has to be explicitly stated in the primary Act. If not provided then a new Act is required.

Can you just write what outcome you want in an Act but implement the whole thing through Secondary Legislation?

Yes, when such proposals are introduced they are called 'Skeleton Bills', as they simply define an outcome along with the power of create whatever secondary legislation is needed to effect it, including the power to amend any existing Acts of Parliment. 

An example of a Skeleton Bill was the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Bereavement) Bill which had a single outcome clause:

"The Secretary of State must by regulations provide for the removal of continuity of employment conditions in respect of the entitlement of a father 
or partner to shared parental leave in cases where a mother has died."

and that:

"Regulations under this Act may amend any Act of Parliament passed before this Act."

Skeleton Bills are generally disliked by Parliament for the lack of detail and broad powers that are granted to the Government to effect their outcome. 

What if you make a new Act and it turns out it contradicts an Act from 1780 or somesuch?

There is a general doctrine called 'implied repeal' which states that new Acts supercede previous Acts.

Parliament also performs 'housecleaning' of legislation every few years to repeal obsolete laws, called 'Statute Law (Repeals) Acts', most recently in 2013.

However, Acts of Parliament have supremacy over the courts, and if a mistake is made in an Act then the court has no discretion to fix it.

That doesn't happen though, right?

Yes, it does.

In 2003 Parliament passed the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which repealed section 116 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. This change removed the powers of courts to impose additional sentences on prisoners who committed crimes while released on licence. The prisoner would have to return to prison under their licence conditions, but any additional sentence would be served during this period, rather than appended to the original sentence, meaning the crime was effectively committed 'for free'.

In 2008, Jamie Costello was released on licence after serving 2 years of a 4 year sentence for robbery and battery, but just 3 months after his release he assaulted his girlfriend with sufficient seriousness to warrant a 6 month sentence. However:

"The statutory rule for early release on licence under sentence B would operate after 6 months, at which time the defendant would still not have completed sentence A. It appeared that the fresh offence B would attract no separate punishment at all. Faced with that situation, the judge passed a sentence of 31 months, having calculated that that would add six months actually in custody to time still to be served under sentence A, thus achieving the net effect of an additional 12 month sentence.

Costello appealed on the grounds that a 31 month sentence was not compatible with the law. The Criminal Court of Appeal found in his favour noting:

Much more important, however, is the repeal of s 116 PCC(S)A. This was clearly a deliberate repeal. No public statement of the reasons for it has been made that we have been able to find. It may be that it was thought that administrative recall would sufficiently deal with prisoners who re-offend on licence. As we have shown, it is far from clear that it does in fact do so, but in addition, it creates the problem set out in paragraph 1 above.

It seems unlikely that it was Parliament's objective that re-offending prisoners must have passed on them sentences which may add nothing to their time in custody. It is no doubt much more likely that this is an unintended consequence of the repeal. But it is not open to courts to disobey a Parliamentary enactment (or, here, repeal) on the grounds that it has unwittingly led to unfortunate consequences. To inflate sentence B, as the judge did here, is to attempt to avoid the repeal of s 116. We are unable to see that a court can be entitled to do this, however laudable its aim.

Costello, having served his sentence under licence at the time of the appeal, was released from custody.

So what do Acts of Parliament look like?

Acts are created with the same basic structure:


Acts have two titles, a Short Title by which the Act is commonly cited eg. Abortion Act 1967 and a Long Title, a description that outlines the scope of the legislation, such as "An Act to amend and clarify the law relating to termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners."


A standard introductory text stating the authority on which an Act of Parliament is founded:

Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:— Chapters, Parts, Sections, Subsections, Paragraphs and Subparagraphs

The main body of the Act, which can vary from a single page to several hundred pages of text.

The text will be given in clauses contained in subsections and paragraphs. These will be grouped into Sections, which in larger Acts, may be further grouped into Parts and Chapters.

Schedules (Optional)

Schedules are appendices, and used when an Act requires lengthy lists, tables or definitions that would be tiresome to have within the main body of the Act. Schedules have exactly the same legal force as text within the Sections of an Act.

For example, Schedule 5 of the Shops Act 1950 (now repealed) listed the trade that were permitted on Sundays and remained in effect until 1994.

Is this the bit where you talk about fish and chips and bike wheels?

Yes it is! Lets talk more about that Shops Act 1950. The Act was written at a time when Sunday trading was sharply limited and provided an explicit list in Schedule 5 of the transactions for which Sunday trading was permitted. This included:

meals or refreshments whether or not for consumption at the shop at which they are sold, but not including the sale of fried fish and chips at a fried fish and chip shop;

Such wonderfully specific wording meant that a Sunday shopper would find Chinese takeaways selling fish and chips, and fish and chip shops selling hamburgers, but not a fish and chip shop selling fish and chips.

Similarly, Section(1)(h) provided that it was legal to sell:

aircraft, motor, or cycle supplies or accessories

Which meant, as one MP wryly noted:

"A law that allows anyone to enter a shop and buy a bicycle wheel, a bicycle frame, brakes, handlebars and gears, but not a bicycle has to be pretty bad."

However, Sunday trading being an issue of perennial debate, the Act did not provide any provision for the Government to amend this law through secondary legislation. These prohibitions remained in force until 1994, with the passage of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 which Repealed the entire Shops Act 1950.

Are there any other odd laws still in effect?

Quite a few. The Law Commission has produced a list exploring commonly believed quirky laws.

How do I understand what an Act actually means?

The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel who draft the text of laws on behalf of the Government have said:

'even barristers, judges and academics may find legislation unclear and, occasionally, quite problematic.'

and that

Even legally qualified users frequently complain about the excessive complexity of legislation and often tend to read the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, rather than the legislative text'.

There are a number of resources for each Act that provide additional information to understanding the effect and impact of legislation, which can usually be accessed from the relevant Acts page. These are usually provided to assist readers and are not considered legally binding definitions of the relevant Act.

Explanatory Notes

Each Bill will provide Explanatory Notes that give a plain English explanation for the legislative text. For instance the Explanatory Notes for Section 54 of the Policing and Crime Actstate:

This section amends sections 34 and 37 of PACE to establish a presumption that release of a person whilst an investigation continues should be without bail unless the pre-conditions of bail are satisfied. These are defined in new section 50A of PACE (inserted by section 58) as the custody officer being satisfied that bail is necessary and proportionate in all the circumstances (having regard, in particular, to any bail conditions that would be imposed) and bail is authorised by a police officer of the rank of inspector or above (having considered any representations made by the person or their legal representative).

Impact Assessments

For legislation that will have a financial impact upon the Government, an impact statement must be produced and signed by the relevant Minister. Impact assessments may reveal additional insight into the motivations and objectives of legislation. For example, the impact assessment of the Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020 states:

"Lower immigration to the UK may result in some wider benefits (better social cohesion and reduced, housing/transport congestion)."

Keeling Schedules

Keeling Schedules are akin to 'Track Changes' versions of the legislation being changed, with insertions, deletions and amendments being clearly indicated

Why did you say ‘statutory law’? Isn’t law just the law?

Statutory laws are the written text (or ‘statutes’) of the law, but England and Wales operates as a ‘common law’ jurisdiction.

Common law comprises the body of binding legal judgments made by courts as to how exactly the law should be interpreted. As other courts will consider those precedents when making later judgments, this body of prior judgement becomes as much a part of the actual law as the written law itself.

Binding precedent can be overturned by a superior court, such as the Court of Appeal, or ultimately, the Supreme Court. Alternatively, statute law triumphs over common law, and can be used to remove any established precedents created under common law, such as the ‘year and a day’ rule previously applied to murder prosecutions.

Some offenses, such as murder, are only defined in common law, as they have been historically prosecuted before written laws and have never been place in statute.

Common law can cause confusion, as people may claim ‘common law’ rights, despite subsequent statute or precedent refuting those claims.

So how does this statute law / common law thing work?

Consider a simple statuary law, Section 90 of the Police Act 1996, which defines the criminal offense of impersonating a police officer.

Clause 2 of the section deals with wearing items of clothing:

‘Any person who, not being a constable, wears any article of police uniform in circumstances where it gives him an appearance so nearly resembling that of a member of a police force as to be calculated to deceive shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.’

The statutory law defines a broad principle, but there are infinite variations on whether a particular item in a particular circumstance could be considered a breach of the law.

Until somebody is prosecuted and either convicted or acquitted in a particular circumstance, creating a common law precedent, it may not be clear whether a particular circumstance could be against the law or not. The law will thus be created by the court, and precedent used to establish in future prosecutions.

Much of the work done by lawyers involves searching for precedents relevant and supportive to a case. These can be used to argue that a court has already determined the issue, and their present case should be decided the same way as the previous court.

Further Resources

UK Parliament Glossary: Acts of Parliament