Private acts are laws in the United Kingdom which apply to a particular individual or group of individuals, or corporate entity. This contrasts with a public general Act of Parliament (statute) which applies to the nation-state. Private acts can afford relief from another law; grant a unique benefit or, grant powers not available under the general law; or, relieve someone from legal responsibility for some allegedly wrongful act.
There are now two types of private act: Acts for the benefit of individuals (known as personal acts), and others acts of local or limited application (known as local acts). This distinction between personal acts and local acts was introduced in 1797, before that time there were simply private acts.
Private acts should not be confused with private member's bills—which, in the Westminster system, are bills for a public general Act of Parliament proposed by individual parliamentarians rather than the government.
About 11,000 private or personal acts have been passed since 1539, and 26,500 local acts have become law since 1797 (when local acts were separated from public general acts).
Personal acts evolved from the right to petition parliament for redress from a specific wrong, or to obtain a benefit that was not otherwise available through statute or the common law. The granting of divorces, the naturalisation of (granting of citizenship to) foreigners, legal name changes, and changing the terms of a will, were often given effect through this means. In more recent years (since the introduction of general divorce and nationality laws, and the widespread adoption of the practice of using a deed poll to change name) the use of personal acts has greatly decreased. From 1980 they were only used to authorise six marriages between individuals who would not otherwise be able to marry due to being within the prohibited degrees of relationship, and no personal acts have been passed since 1987.
Until 1815, private and personal acts were not officially printed (although it was common for a private bill to include a clause to deem the Act to be a public act and this would lead to it being printed). Divorce acts enacted between 1815 and 1922 were not printed whilst some other personal acts were.
Local acts are generally sought by and for the benefit of organisations or used to authorise major projects such as railways or canals or to grant extra powers.
The latter are often sought by local authorities who may seek additional powers to enable them to manage or control issues occurring in their locality. One such example is the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation (Greater London Parks and Open Spaces) Act 1967.
Corporations and major projects
Their use has become more limited in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as statute law (principally the Transport and Works Act 1992) and statutory instruments have enabled many situations to be dealt with through other, delegated, legislative mechanisms. Major public transport projects which do require the passing of a specific Act of Parliament now tend to be dealt with as hybrid bills which become public general Acts of Parliament.
However, local acts are still used for special purposes. One such example is in the formal restructuring of corporations. Recent examples include the HSBC Investment Banking Act 2002. This Act facilitated the transfer of one HSBC subsidiary's businesses to two other subsidiaries based on business lines; and, the HBOS Group Reorganisation Act 2006 (which facilitated, among other issues, converting the Bank of Scotland into a public limited company).
Similarly, major changes to the organisation of universities or charities are facilitated through local acts: for example the University of Manchester Act 2004 merged two Manchester-based universities into a single institution.
The majority of local acts now passed are promoted by local authorities. Such acts are often for the purpose of giving the local authority additional powers to deal with such matters as street trading.
Private bills are introduced into Parliament by the person promoting them by means of a petition. Because they may grant powers in excess of the normal law, a person, organisation or local community which could be affected by the proposed law can object to it, either through presenting a petition of their own or securing the support of a Member of Parliament to block the bill.
When the bill is sent to a committee of each House, the committee hears arguments for and against the bill in a way quite similar to a civil court hearing: the promoter (often represented by a barrister) has to prove their case and satisfy the committee that the bill is necessary, whilst any opposers will seek to demonstrate that it is not. If the committee agrees that the purposes of the bill are proper and desirable then the bill continues on to the next stage, and ultimately to the other House where a similar process is followed.
Local and personal Acts of Parliament have two distinctive features. Firstly, they are preceded by a preamble setting out the reasons why the act needs to be made (and the preamble must be proved for the Act to be made). Secondly, they are published in separate series from public acts: whilst public acts are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. in the year they are passed, local acts are numbered using roman numerals (i, ii, iii etc.) and personal acts are numbered using italic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.).
The 1936 act (which replaced similar previous acts dating back to 1899) provides for petitions for private legislation which are opposed to be considered by an inquiry panel made up of two members of the House of Commons and two members of the House of Lords. The inquiry sits in Scotland, rather than at Westminster, and hears arguments for and against the proposal, before making a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Scotland. If the proposal is not opposed then an inquiry is not held, but the petition is still scrutinised by counsel to the Secretary of State.
If the inquiry's, or counsel's, recommendation is positive then the Secretary of State makes a provisional order. This order has no effect, however, until confirmed by an order confirmation act passed by Parliament. The bill for such an act normally skips the second reading and committee stages of the parliamentary process (as this has been replaced by the inquiry) and so takes up less time.
Since devolution, many matters which were previously dealt with by provisional orders now fall within the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has its own private legislation procedures which provide for the consideration of the bill and any objections by a specially convened private bill committee of the parliament.
In contrast to personal and local acts passed by the Westminster Parliament, private bills in the Scottish Parliament do not begin with a preamble and, when they have been passed, become part of the same series (system of numbering) as, and so are indistinguishable from, public Acts of the Scottish Parliament.
- Introduction to the Chronological Table of Private and Personal Acts, Office of Public Sector Information – retrieved 23 May 2009
- Private Acts of Parliament used to effect a change of name, Deed Poll Office
- Discussion about Baines' Name Bill, Hansard, House of Lords, 13 March 1907 vol 171 cc1-3
- Discussion about Baines' Name Bill, Hansard, House of Lords, 14 March 1907 vol 171 cc162-3
- Chronological Table of the Private and Personal Acts Part 33 (1910-1987), Office of Public Sector Information – retrieved 23 May 2009
- "Ministry of Housing and Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation (Greater London Parks and Open Spaces) Act" (PDF). Legislation UK. Retrieved 13 Jul 2017.
- Private Bills, House of Commons Factsheet L4, October 2008 – retrieved on 23 May 2009
- "HSBC Investment Banking Act 2002". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 2017-07-13.
- Chronological Tables of Local Acts. Part 187 (1989-2003). Legislation.gov.uk.
- Medway Council Act 2004
- Order Confirmation Bills and Special Procedure Orders Archived 2009-06-18 at the Wayback Machine, House of Commons Factsheet L9, April 2008 – retrieved on 23 May 2009
- "Private Bills". Scottish Parliament. Archived from the original on 2006-12-05. Retrieved 23 May 2009.
- "Guidance on Private Bills". Scottish Parliament. Archived from the original on 2009-07-08. Retrieved 23 May 2009.