About Printed Acts of Parliament
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Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone (617) 492-4653
Definition 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 with holding them from certain persons or classes of persons.

Acts of Parliament fall into two classes ---- :"Public" and "Private." The former are officially defined in the Commons' Manual of Procedure as having for their object "to alter the general law," the latter, "to alter the law relating to some particular locality, or to confer rights on or relieve from liability some particular person or body 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 be came a fixed constitutional principle that an act of parliament, to be valid, must express concurrently the will of the entire legisla ture. It was not, however; till the reign of Henry VI. that it be came 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." In the very rare cases where bills have been enacted under the Parliament Act in opposition to the will of the Lords, the formula is varied, the words "Lords Spiritual and Temporal" being omitted, and the word "Commons" being followed by "in accordance with the pro visions of the Parliament Act." 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 Northem Ireland, in Parliament assembled, towards making good the supply 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 be seech Your Majesty that it may be enacted, etc."

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 the most important acts to I that date by their short titles, either individually or collectively. Most modem acts have borne short titles independently of the Act of 1892.

The Historical Importance of the Printed Acts Sessional Volumes of the Statutes were printed by the Crown (offical) Printer in order to make them available to judges, barristers, and interested parties. These Acts of Parliament provide a vital source of information for the historian. No one who has read at all widely in the history of Great Britain and her colonies can fail to realize the importance of the statutes in the political and economic history of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Indeed the history of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution could largely be written in terms of the legislation of the Parliaments of the period. The Acts 1 Will. & Mary sess. 1, c. I and 1 Will. & Mary sess. 2, c. 2 (The Bill of Rights), for example, granted the throne to King William and Queen Mary and legitimized the Covention Parliament.

Going further afield, the various Acts restricting colonial trade and imposing taxation on the colonists, together with the better known Stamp Act, and quartering Act of 1765, and the Intolerable Acts of 1774 were major causes of the American Revolution. The Union of England and Scotland was effected by an Act, and of Great Britain and Ireland by another. The Bank of England was incorporated by an Act in 1694, and the Bank of Scotland by a Scottish Act in 1695. Even outside the field of politics, economics and general law, Acts often marked important changes and developments in the nation's life. The two Acts 24 Geo. 11, c. 23 and 25 Geo II, c. 30 introduced the Gregorian Calender. The Act 13 Ann, c. 14 provided a reward for discovering a means of determining the longitude at sea; and the Act 21 & 22 Vict., c. 90 laid down strict provisions for the qualification and licensing of medical practitioners.

Lesser known Acts, also, throw important light on social conditions and attitudes. The preamble of 15 Geo. III, c. 28 (1775), states that many colliers and salt-workers in Scotland were at that date effectively slaves, bound with their wives and children to the collieries and salt-works where they worked for their life, and transferable with such collieries and salt-works when the same were sold.

It is not only in the broad stream of the nation's public life that the Acts are of importance. They also provide much useful information for the local historian. Many of the country's roads and streets, and nearly all its canals, for example, were originally constructed and maintained by bodies created by Act of Parliament, which also gave them their powers. The same applies to the country's early theatres.

Rarity of the Printed Acts It is generally assumed, incorrectly, that copies of all the statutes in their entirety are easily obtainable. This is not so. Contemporary officially printed copies are scarce and hard to come by. For, while there are many general collection of the statutes in existence, the majority of these were produced for the benefit of lawyers and administrators, who were only interested in the Statutes in force at the date of publication, so such collections generally do not contain any Acts which have been repealed or amended; or, if they do, such Acts are only published in an abridged form.

The only complete contemporary copies of the statutes are the Original Acts and the Sessional Volumes produced by the Crown Printer.As to the Original Act not more than two original copies of any Act were ever produced, and these are held either by the Public Records Office or by the Clerk of the Parliaments at Westminster. None exist in private hands. Until 1849 each Original Act was engrosssed by hand on a single membrane of parchment. Since 1849 the Original Acts have been produced in the form of a separate printed vellum book for each Act.

The publication of official printed copies of the statutes commenced in the year 1483, with a volume printed by Caxton or Machlinia, containing the Acts passed in the first Parliament of Richard III. Since that year (except during the Commonwealth, when the Acts and Ordinances were printed and distributed separately soon after they were made, and for a short period thereafter, when the Acts were printed and distributed either singly, or in small groups, by different printers, during the course of the session), one or more Sessional Volumes containing all the Public, and (until 1797, when Local and Private Acts began to be published in separate volumes) some Local and Private Acts, have been printed annually by the Crown Printer and distributed by him at the order of Parliament.

The Sessional Volumes up to the year 1713 are of extreme scarcity, the Library of the House of Lords holds only eight such volumes for the whole of the 17th Century. After the year 1713 the Sessional Volumes achieved a wider distribution, but we know from the Report of the Committee for the Promulgation of the Statutes (1796) that the maximum number of Sessional Volumes printed and distributed in respect of any Session to that date only slightly exceeded 1,100, and that those were distributed only to the Members of both Houses of Parliament, the great officers and offices of state, and the judiciary.

From the same source we know that about half of the volumes were not bound by the Crown Printer, but were distributed in wraps. It is, therefore, fair to assume that more than half of the volumes so printed have been destroyed or committed to libraries. The practice of the Crown Printer up to 1797 (except, as mentioned, during the Commonwealth and Restoration years) was to print all the Acts of any one session together, at one time at the end of the session, as a book, and the pagination and signatures of each Act (which is always described as a chapter) are continuous. He may occasionally have printed a number of copies of important individual Acts separately for private distribution, with separate pagination and signatures; but, since these were almost certainly sold disbound, it is reasonable to assume that very few have survived to this date.

Until 1793 the text of all the Sessional Volumes is in gothic lettering (i.e. "black letter"). Generally, but by no means always, up to the year 1798 each Act in the Sessional Volumes was printed with its own separate title page, the reverse of which is blank. From 1794, the text of each Act commences with a head ornament of the Royal Anns and ends with a colophon, giving the place of publication, name of the Crown Printer'and the date; and there is no title page as such.

For the year 1797, in accordance with a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament, the distribution of the Sessional Volumes was increased to include the major public libraries, the lesser judiciary, and larger numbers of central and local government officers. For a number of years thereafter only 5,500 volumes were distributed. The practice of printing and distribution also changed. Instead of printing all the Acts of the session together as a volume, the Crown Printer printed the Acts separately (although still with continuous pagination and signatures) as soon as possible after they had received the Royal Assent, and the majority were despatched to the recipients in bundles at a time, disbound, to be bound into volumes at the end of the session. This remained the practice until the 1880s when the Stationery Office commenced to print large numbers of Acts with separate individual pagination and signatures, as well as yearly Sessional Volumes.

The only other complete officially printed series of the statutes is the Statutes of the Realm series of Tomlin and Raithby. However, these are not contemporary with the Original Act, and the text is continuous throughout the volumes. A contemporary Crown Printer's copy of any Act is the closest resembling document to the unobtainable original Act and has always been regarded as being of the highest authority. The Act 41 Geo. III, c. page 90, S-8 provides that copies of the Statutes of England & & & printed and published by the King's Printer duly authorised shall be received by the courts as conclusive proof of the Statutes.

More detailed information regarding the publication of the statutes may be found in:

  • English Historical Documents. Ed. D. C. Douglas. 12 Vols. in 13 (1959) Eyre and Spottiswood.
  • W. C. C64in & J. Steven Watson: The Law and Working of the Constitution (Documents) 2 Vols (1952) A. & C. Black.
  • Maurice F. Bond: The Records of Parliament (1964) Phillimore.
  • Maurice F. Bond: Guide to the Records of Parliament (1971) HVSO
  • Maurice F. Bond: "Acts of Parliament", Archive Vol. III & PP. 201 British Records Association (1958)
  • Sir Charles E. Odgers: Craies on Statute Law 5th. Ed. (1952) Sweet & Maxwell
  • Sir T. E. Tomlin: Introduction to Statutes of the Realm Vol. 1 (1801)
  • The Report of the Committee for the Publication of the Statutes (1796) Sessional Papers.
  • Sweet & Maxwell's Guide to the Law Reports and Statutes 4th Ed. (1962)

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