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Certificate in Law: Intro to Basic Legal Concepts

This guide was designed for students in the Queen's Certificate in Law program.

Statutory Law and the Legislative Process

There are two main sources of law: statutory law and case law (see Case Law and the Court System). Statutory law consists of the statutes (written laws) passed by the federal, provincial, and territorial legislatures. 

This page provides an overview of how a statute becomes law, with a main focus on the federal legislative process. 

The Federal Legislative Process


Every federal statute starts out as a bill

In order to become law, a bill must be introduced in the legislature and go through a series of stages, outlined in brief here (click to expand each section):

A government bill is a draft piece of legislation. A bill can be drafted by the government in power or by an individual member of the House of Commons. The Senate can also draft and introduce a bill, though the majority of federal legislation originates in the House of Commons (see note below).

The bill is introduced in the chamber. This may include a statement or summary of the bill.

Second reading provides an opportunity for members to debate the bill. At this stage, the bill can also be referred to a committee for further study.

A committee's role is to closely review a bill and to approve or modify it. At this stage, witnesses may be invited to present their views on the bill and answer questions.

Afterwards, the committee performs a clause-by-clause consideration of the bill and votes on amendments (changes) to the text, followed by a vote on the bill as a whole.

The chair of the committee reports the bill back to the House. At this stage, members can propose and debate further amendments to the text of the bill.

This final stage in the House allows members to debate the final form of the bill and decide if it should be adopted. It is also possible to send the bill back to committee at this stage.

In order to become law, every federal bill must be passed in identical form by both legislative chambers: the House of Commons and the Senate. So once a bill has been adopted by the House, it is therefore sent to the Senate where it follows a similar legislative process: first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage, and third reading.

If the bill is passed in the Senate without amendment, the bill proceeds to the next step (Royal Assent). If the Senate makes amendments to the bill, it must return to the House where the amendments must either be accepted or rejected before the bill receives Royal Assent.

Royal assent is the final stage a bill must pass before becoming an act of Parliament. Royal assent is granted by the Governor General (or other representative of the Crown) once a bill has been adopted in identical form by both the House of Commons and the Senate.

Even though Royal Assent signifies the passage of a bill into law, it does not necessarily mean that this law is in effect as of that date. A statute can come into force in three ways:

  1. On the date it receives Royal Assent. This is typically the default method of coming into force.
  2. On a date set in the future, as specified in the bill.
  3. On a date to be determined through a proclamation or order.
Coming into force (also called "commencement") information is usually found at the end of a bill.

Note: The above process refers to bills introduced in the House of Commons. While most legislation originates here, it is also possible for the Senate to draft and introduce a bill. When this happens, the bill follows the same steps in reverse order - making its way through passage in the Senate (first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage, and third reading) before sending the bill to the House of Commons, where it goes through the same stages. In order for the bill to become law, it must be passed in identical form by both chambers.

Provincial and Territorial Legislation - Key Differences

The legislative process at the provincial and territorial level shares many similarities to the federal process.

The key difference is that provincial and territorial legislatures are unicameral ("one chamber"), while the federal legislature is bicameral ("two chambers" i.e. the House of Commons and the Senate). With only one chamber, the legislative process is significantly simpler.

For example, in Ontario, a bill has only to receive passage in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The steps to pass such a bill are very similar to those identified above: first reading, second reading, consideration in committee, report stage, third reading, royal assent, and coming into force. 

Further Reading