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United Kingdom Legal Research Guide

This in-depth guide will help researchers navigate legal materials for the United Kingdom.

UK Legislation

Table of Contents

Notwithstanding its common law heritage, the modern UK legal system relies heavily on statutory law. This guide focuses on legislation enacted for the United Kingdom as a whole.  With the introduction of devolved legislatures in three of the UK's four constituent nations, legislation that pertains only to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland is becoming more common.  

American researchers should bear in mind that there is no official compilation of all UK statutes currently in force comparable to the United States Code. Nevertheless, consolidated legislation, which incorporates all subsequent revisions and amendments made to the original legislation, is readily accessible from both official and unofficial sources.
 

Acts of Parliament (Primary Legislation)

Acts of Parliament, sometimes referred to as primary legislation, are the supreme law in the United Kingdom. Most Acts of Parliament fall into one of two broad categories: Public General Acts of universal application and Private Acts affecting only specified localities, entities or individuals. A third category of Hybrid Acts combines elements of both public and private acts.  The vast majority of UK legal research involves Public General Acts.  

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly each enact primary legislation for their respective jurisdictions, but only with respect to those matters that have been devolved to them by the national Parliament in London.
 

Secondary (Delegated) Legislation

Secondary legislation refers to specialized rules and regulations issued by ministers or governmental entities acting under authority delegated to them by an Act of Parliament. Such rules, also known as as delegated legislation, have the force of law and are analogous to regulations issued by administrative agencies in the United States.

The most common type of secondary legislation is known as a Statutory Instrument (SI). Other types of secondary legislation include Orders in Council and Orders of Council.  For information about the distinctions between the various types of secondary legislation, consult this House of Commons Background Paper on Statutory Instruments (scroll down to download in PDF format).

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly also enact primary legislation that authorizes the creation of secondary legislation applicable within their respective jurisdictions.
 

Electronic Sources for Enacted Legislation

  • Legislation.gov.uk 
    This free database, maintained by the UK's National Archives, is one of the most sophisticated and easy-to-use tools available for statutory research.  It provides access to both primary and secondary legislation for the UK as a whole and for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Coverage includes all types of legislation enacted from 1988 to the present.  Most primary legislation enacted prior to 1988 also is included.

    • The advanced search template enables users to search for enacted legislation or draft legislation by title and keyword. By default, enacted legislation is displayed in its current (consolidated) version, which incorporates all subsequent changes to the original legislation.  Users may opt to display the legislation as originally enacted.  It is also possible to search for legislation as it stood at a particular point in time from 1991 to the present.

    • In addition, users may browse for primary and secondary legislation chronologically by type, browse newly enacted legislation by date of publication, and view changes made to enacted legislation from 2002 to the present.

    • For further information, consult this helpful Guide to Revised Legislation, which is available for download in PDF format.  A glossary of legislative terms also is available for quick reference. 

  • British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII)
    BAILII also provides free online access to primary and secondary legislation for the UK and its component parts. Although the interface is not as sleek and user-friendly as that of Legislation.gov.uk, its content is drawn from the same National Archives database. Both search and browse options are available.

  • Lexis (All UK Statutes and Legislation)
    This Lexis gateway page provides access to current (consolidated) versions of legislation enacted by the UK Parliament (UK Parliament Acts), the Welsh Assembly (Welsh Assembly Acts), and the Scottish Parliament (Scottish Parliament Acts).  Each of these legislative databases also includes recently enacted legislation that has not yet entered into force.  There are separate databases for UK-wide statutory instruments (SIs), grouped by date of enactment, and for Scottish statutory instruments.

  • Westlaw (United Kingdom Resources)
    Westlaw has statutes and statutory instruments currently in force for the UK as a whole (UK Law in Force) and and for Scotland (Scots Law in Force).  Users of Westlaw also may access prior versions of UK-wide statutes and statutory instruments dating back to 1992 (UK Law in Force:  Historic).  In addition, Westlaw offers statutory citators for UK-wide legislation (UK Legislation Locator) and for Scottish legislation (Scots Law Legislation Locator).  These tools enable users to track amendments to legislation over time and provides references to cases and secondary sources that have cited the legislation.
     

Print Sources for Enacted Legislation

The most commonly used print resource for U.K. primary legislation is Halsbury's Statutes of England and Wales (4th edition) INTL KD135 .H3 1985. This commercially published, multi-volume set provides access to consolidated statutes organized by subject matter. It is updated periodically with replacement volumes. For each entry, there are annotations to relevant Parliamentary debates, amendments, repeals, secondary legislation, and case law. To search for statutes by subject, use the Consolidated Index. To locate a statute by title, consult the Alphabetical List of Statutes within the Consolidated Index.

Updating statutes in print is a multi-step process. Begin by consulting the Cumulative Supplement to Halsbury's Statutes for the current year. Check under the volume, title, and page number of the original act for any changes. Review the same information in the Noter Up Service binder for Halsbury's Statutes, which is updated more frequently than the Cumulative Supplement. Then check Current Law Monthly DigestINTL KD296 .C821, for the most recent updates. Finally, consult Is It In Force?INTL KD135 .H3 I8, to make sure the statute hasn't been repealed.
 

Tracking Pending Legislation

Use the following resources to track pending legislation:

  • UK Parliament
     
    • Bills Before Parliament -- Access the full text of all public, private, and hybrid bills introduced during the current parliamentary session, and track their progress.  Includes bills enacted into law.
       
    • Progress of Public Bills -- Access a downloadable PDF document summarizing all actions taken to date on each public bill introduced during the current parliamentary session.  Updated weekly on Fridays.  Cumulative summaries of the progress of public bills introduced during prior sessions from 2012 onward also are available.
       
    • Bills in Previous Sessions -- Access the texts of bills introduced during prior parliamentary sessions.  For public bills, coverage is from 2002-onward.  For private bills, coverage is from 2001-onward.
       
    • Hansard Online -- Edited verbatim transcripts of proceedings in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are published in Hansard, the UK equivalent of the Congressional Record.  Proceedings from 2010 onward, including all recorded divisions (votes) are available online.  Content may be searched or browsed.  For House of Commons proceedings prior to 2010, consult the Hansard Archives.
       
  • Scottish Parliament -- Current Bills
     
  • Welsh Assembly -- Progress of Assembly Bills
     
  • Northern Ireland Assembly -- Assembly Legislation