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 provides access to all primary legislation from 1988-present and to all secondary legislation from 1987-present for the UK as a whole and for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Most primary legislation enacted prior to 1988 also is included, as is a selection of secondary legislation enacted from 1948-1986 and selected statutory rules and orders enacted prior to 1948.  Note that there are gaps in coverage for historical legislation enacted prior to 1900.

    • The Advanced Search enables you to search by keyword or by title and to limit searches by year and by type of legislation.   Use the menu on the left to search for draft legislation or for impact assessments, instead of enacted legislation.

    • By default, enacted legislation is displayed in its current (consolidated) version, which incorporates all subsequent changes to the original legislation.  You 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, you 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 additional guidance, review the list of Frequently Asked Questions and this helpful Guide to Revised Legislation.  A glossary of legislative terms also is available for quick reference. 

  • vlexJustis
    This subscription database provides access to the legislative materials listed below,  Scroll down to search for known legislation by title and to limit searches by type of legislation, by jurisdiction, and by date.

    • Primary Legislation enacted by the UK Parliament (1800-present), the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (1999-present), and the Northern Ireland Assembly (2000-present).

    • Secondary Legislation:  UK statutory instruments (1949-present); a collection of older UK statutory instruments (1671-1948); selected UK statutory rules and orders; and secondary legislation issued by the devolved legislatures (1999-present).

    • Historical Legislation enacted by the Parliament of Great Britain (1707--1800) and the Parliament of England [and Wales] (1235--1707).  Coverage of historical legislation is more comprehensive than on legislation.gov.uk.

  • British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII)
    BAILII also provides free online access to primary and secondary legislation for the UK as a whole and for its component nations. 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 Measures), 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 other types of content, including UK-wide statutory instruments (SIs), which are grouped by date of enactment, and Scottish statutory instruments. 

  • Westlaw (United Kingdom Resources)
    Westlaw has statutes and statutory instruments currently in force for the UK as a whole (UK Legislation:  Statutes) and and for Scotland (Scots Legislation:  Statutes).  Users of Westlaw also may access prior versions of UK-wide statutes and statutory instruments dating back to 1992 (UK Legislation:  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

Halsbury's Statutes of England and Wales (4th edition), Call No. KD135 .H3 1985.
This multi-volume set is the most commonly used print resource for U.K. primary legislation.  It is organized by subject and includes the full texts of statutes currently in force at the time of publication.  Updated periodically with replacement volumes incorporating newly enacted or amended statutes. Use the Consolidated Index to search for statutes by subject.  Consult the Alphabetical List of Statutes, within the Consolidated Index, to locate a statute by title.  For each statute, you will find annotations to related Parliamentary debates, amendments, secondary legislation, and case law. 

To update UK statutes in print, follow these steps:

  • Consult the most recent Cumulative Supplement to Halsbury's Statutes of England and Wales. 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 the Current Law Monthly Digest (Call No. KD296 .C821) for the most recent updates. 
  • Finally, consult Is It In Force? (Call No. KD135 .H3 I8) to verify that the statute has not been repealed.

Current Law Statutes Annotated, Dates of Coverage: 1976-2020, Call No. KD135 .C8.
This multi-volume print series publishes the full texts of Acts of the UK Parliament as they were originally enacted in chronological order.  For each act, you will find an overview of its contents, information about the legal and policy considerations that led to its enactment, information about its territorial extent and application, and references to relevant Parliamentary debates.  Note:  For born-digital acts (1999-present), this information ("explanatory notes") is available online on legislation.gov.uk.

Pending Legislation, Bill Tracking & Parliamentary Debates

Use the following resources to track pending legislation and access parliamentary debates and votes (divisions):

  • UK Parliament
    • Find a Bill -- Access the full texts of all public, private, and hybrid bills introduced in the UK Parliament from 2006-present, and track their progress.  Note that the default search is limited bills from the current parliamentary session.  Use the "Session" menu to select a prior session or search across all available sessions.  After locating the desired bill, click on the title to open the record for the bill.  Select "Stages" from the menu at the top of the record to track the progress of the bill.  Click on "Publications" to view related documents, including tracked changes to the draft bill, explanatory notes, and transcripts of parliamentary debates.
    • 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 -- Transcripts of proceedings and debates, including all recorded divisions (votes), in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are published in Hansard, the UK equivalent of the The Congressional Record.  Coverage is comprehensive from 2010-present.  Almost all transcripts from 1803-2009 have been added to the online database, but some minor gaps in coverage remain and are in the process of being filled.  Content may be searched or browsed.
    • Hansard Archives (House of Commons Only)
      Browse chronologically for Debates, Statements, and Written Answers (1988-2016); Debates, Statements, and Questions by name of each member of Parliament (2006-2016); Public Bill Committee Debates (1997-2016); General Committee Debates (1997-2016); and Historic Hansard (1803-2005).

  • Scottish Parliament -- Current Bills
  • Welsh Assembly -- Legislation - Progress of Senedd Bills
  • Northern Ireland Assembly -- Assembly Legislation