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Bills propose new laws or changes to existing laws. They are introduced into either the House of Commons or House of Lords for examination, discussion and amendment.
When both Houses have agreed on the content of a Bill and Royal Assent is given it will become an Act of Parliament and will become law. There are different types of Bill, Public Bills, Private Members' Bills, Private Bills and Hybrid Bills.
They may start from promises made in party manifestos, or as a result of a national emergency or crisis. Royal Commissions sometimes report to Parliament with recommendations for legislation and the Law Commission will make recommendations for reform of the law to the Government.
A major criticism of the process of Parliamentary law making is one of delay. A contributory factor is that once a government is formed following a General Election it will put together a programme of reform and this is likely to be based on its party manifesto upon which it stood for election. This in itself will have come about as a result of a range of influences such as party political conferences and meetings, campaigns by members of the public and other pressure groups as well as campaigns run by sections of the media.
These influences all serve to shape policy and this will take place over a period of time. In addition it has now become common practice for government to announce its programme of legislation via the Queen's Speech. The Queen's Speech sets out, at the beginning of each Parliamentary session, what matters the government intends to concentrate upon. This may well depend upon the vagaries of whether the government feels sufficiently confident that it will get the legislation through without too much trouble.
Not all law reform is dealt with by the government itself and in fact the Law Commission was set up by the Law Commissions Act 1965 to systematically keep the law under review; to codify and consolidate areas of the law; to receive proposals for law reform for consideration and to consult with interested parties in order to make suggestions to government for law reform.
The Commission has had some notable successes such as the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, the Criminal Attempts Act 1981 and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 but at the end of the day the Law Commission can only report its findings to the government, and recently there have been concerns that insufficient Parliamentary time is found to act upon the recommendations of the Commission. The result being that many areas have not yet received the attention of Parliament. This leads to the argument that no matter how well areas of law reform have been considered by those charged with it, such matters may have to give way to other areas which may be more politically attractive to the government of the day.
The complexity of modern legislation may mean that despite the law being kept under review and the introduction of reforms, it may be that this is done on a piecemeal basis in order to achieve political objectives and this may mean that other legislation then needs to be reformed so that it is consistent and takes into account changes that are needed to keep abreast of the latest development. This makes it difficult to find out which Acts or sections are in force and in finding out the original Act with all of its subsequent amendments on a certain topic.
Despite its complexity the language used can be complicated and obscure and can cause problems of its own, for example The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, used the word “type” of dog, which caused uncertainty and it was unclear as to what dogs were covered by the Act.
The Parliamentary law making procedure is a political process in the sense that key legislation is usually introduced on behalf of the government and that, because of differences in political ideology, members having a different political persuasion will challenge and oppose the government. This may be more to do with political differences and dogma than genuine issues with the law as proposed. Part of the official opposition's role is to question government policy on our behalf.
The political agenda is controlled by government and this may lead to criticisms that the question of reforms may have to take second place to what might be sensible and prudent politically if the government wants to be re-elected. This could mean that despite the work of others, such as pressure groups, to bring our attention to matters of concern, it may not mean that such reform becomes top of the agenda so far as the government is concerned.
Criticism of the legislative process is not a new thing. Indeed the Renton Committee reported as long ago as 1975 and raised a number of concerns. One of these concerns was that the language used in large numbers of Acts was obscure and inaccessible. In addition modern Acts tend to try and cater for every contingency – the result being that Acts are over-elaborate and littered with provisos.
In some cases there may be more than one statute dealing with an area of the law so that it may be necessary to read more than one Act making it difficult and time consuming to actually find and identify the law. This applies to practising members of the legal profession not just to members of the public.
Such problems as identified by the Renton Committee make it difficult for many to access the law whether at the reform stage or when it is in force. On the contrary judge made directions and law is becoming jargon free as more and more judges receive training and approach the law differently to make it more accessible to juries and parties to legislation. This is especially important in the case of the criminal law when a person's liberty may be at stake.
Indeed one of the findings of the Hansard Society Commission in 1992 was that laws are made for the benefit of citizens and as such the citizens affected should be able to participate much more in the Parliamentary process. The Commission also recognised the need for the law to be made as accessible as possible and continues its work in this regard.
It may be argued that there is a benefit to having two Houses in order that proposals are not introduced without scrutiny. One of the consequences of the present system of legislation being debated and scrutinised by the House of Commons as well as the House of Lords is that, as a result of a desire to pass legislation, political compromises are needed.
Consequently it could be argued that the legislation in question is so compromised that it is debatable whether it achieves the purpose for which it was originally intended. This can be illustrated by the Hunting Act 2004 which took so long to pass through both Houses, and was amended so many times in order to overcome political opposition, that in its final form it was unrecognisable from the Bill that was first introduced many years previously.
Neither the House of Lords or the Queen are elected by the public, and as both Houses will scrutinise and debate a Bill it raises concerns about democracy and the wishes of the general public. A Bill is formally agreed to by the reigning monarch and, although this is said to be a formality once the Bill has been approved by a majority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it remains a fact that the monarch has not been elected by the public.
There are also times, such as the passing of the Tuition Fees Bill 2010, when MPs are required to vote in accordance with its party's wishes rather than represent the wishes of their constituents.
Recent arguments suggest that, at times, politicians cannot resist the temptation to speak publicly about the need for reform, even though it is questionable if the law needs reform because it is already working. This 'interference' type of issue is said to account for unnecessary legislation, it seemed like a good idea at the time, as politicians like to be seen to be doing things on our behalf.
The spate of crime and public disorder legislation promoted by the labour government of the day has been categorised in this way. Similarly, there are regular calls by politicians for the law of self defence to be strengthened whereas many professionals do not see the need for reform. These public statements seem to arise from some 'have a go' victims that have subsequently been prosecuted as a result of using force to protect themselves and their property prompting indignant statements about the inadequacy of the present law.
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This essay looks at the criticisms aimed at the process of Parliamentary law making. It looks at the Law Commission Act 1965 and some of its achievements, and the findings and recommendations of the Renton Committee and the Hansard Society.
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(Word Count 1468)
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