1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Act of Parliament

ACT OF PARLIAMENT. An act of parliament may be regarded as a declaration of the legislature, enforcing certain rules of conduct, or defining rights and conferring them upon or withholding them from certain persons or classes of persons. The collective body of such declarations constitutes the statutes of the realm or written law of the British nation, in the widest sense, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. It is not, however, till the earlier half of the 13th century that, in a more limited constitutional sense, the statute-book is generally held to open, and the parliamentary records only begin to assume distinct outlines late in the reign of Edward I. It gradually became a fixed constitutional principle that an act of parliament, to be valid, must express concurrently the will of the entire legislature. It was not, however, till the reign of Henry VI. that it became customary, as now, to introduce bills into parliament in the form of finished acts; and the enacting clause, regarded by constitutionalists as the first perfect assertion, in words, of popular right, came into general use as late as the reign of Charles II. It is thus expressed in the case of all acts other than those granting money to the crown:—“Be it enacted by the King’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.” Where the act is a money grant the enacting clause is prefaced by the words, “Most gracious Sovereign, we, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, towards making good the supply[1] which we have cheerfully granted to Your Majesty in this session of Parliament, have resolved to grant unto Your Majesty the sums hereinafter mentioned; and do therefore most humbly beseech Your Majesty that it may be enacted, &c.” The use of the preamble with which acts are usually prefaced is thus quaintly set forth by Lord Coke: “The rehearsal or preamble of the statute is a good meane to find out the meaning of the statute, and, as it were, a key to open the understanding thereof” (Co. Litt. 79a). Originally the collective acts of each session formed but one statute, to which a general title was attached, and for this reason an act of parliament was up to 1892 generally cited as the chapter of a particular statute, e.g. 24 and 25 Vict. c. 101. Titles were, however, prefixed to individual acts as early as 1488. Now, by the Short Titles Act 1892, it is optional to cite most important acts up to that date by their short titles, either individually or collectively. Most modern acts have borne short titles independently of the act of 1892. (See Parliament; Statute.)

  1. Where the grant is not of supply, the preamble varies a little, e.g. in the Prince of Wales’s Children Act 1889.