Skip to main content

Legal Research Manual

This edition of Legal Research Manual builds on many previous editions. While the manual is designed principally for use with the first year legal research classes, upper year law students will also find it a useful reference.

The Legislative Process (Federal)

Detailed information on the federal legislative process may be found on the website for the Parliament of Canada. An additional and highly recommended resource for information on the legislative process in Canada is Audrey O’Brien and Marc Bosc, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed. (2009) available in print (call number KE4535 .C32 2009) and online.

Bills

There are two main types of bills: public and private. In general, a public bill is concerned with matters of public policy, while a private bill relates to matters of a particular interest to a person or a corporation. Because the legislative process of a private bill is somewhat different, it is discussed separately at the end of this chapter.

Public bills are those that, if passed, affect public policy or amend a public Act. The majority of bills introduced by a cabinet member in the House of Commons are government public bills. They reflect government public policy, and passage of these bills has government priority. House of Commons public bills are numbered Bill C-1 to Bill C-200 for each session: Senate bills are numbered beginning with Bill S-1. Only a minister may introduce a bill for the appropriation of any part of the public revenue or for taxation. Such bills require additional procedures for passage in the House, as discussed below.

Private members' public bills are introduced in Parliament by the member of Parliament responsible for the bill. Such bills originating in the House are numbered from C-201 to C-1000 in the order in which they are introduced, and are considered in the order established by a draw and as set forth in the Standing Orders, although this order may be altered by unanimous consent. If passed they become public acts; however, since these bills generally do not reflect government policy, they rarely get beyond first reading.

Stages of a Bill - The Traditional Legislative Process

Before a bill becomes law, it goes through several stages as detailed below:

Introduction

To introduce a public bill, a Member must give 48 hours' written notice, stating the title of the bill, and then, by motion, obtain leave to introduce the bill. This motion is automatically adopted without debate, amendment or question put. A private Member introducing a bill then will normally make a short speech explaining the purpose of his or her bill. Normally, a minister introducing a government bill does not speak at this time. Notice of introduction is not required in the Senate.

First Reading

The first reading of a bill in the House of Commons consists of the adoption of two motions: one is a motion for leave to introduce the bill, and the second is a motion that the bill be "read" a first time and that it be printed. These motions are purely formal in that there is no debate and the bill is not actually read aloud. Following the motions, the Speaker asks: "When shall the bill be read a second time?", to which the response is generally: "At the next sitting of the House." This formality allows the bill to be placed on the Order Paper for second reading. The bill is then printed overnight by the Queen's Printer for Canada under the authority of the Speaker of the House and distributed to members the next day. At that time it is also available to the public.

In the Senate, no motion for first reading is required. A Senator simply presents the bill, stating its title. This presentation, together with the Clerk Assistant's announcement that the bill has been read a first time, constitutes the first reading of the bill.

Second Reading

Second reading is the most important stage in the passage of a bill. It is then that the principle and object of the bill are debated and either accepted or rejected. This is frequently a lengthy process that begins with the sponsoring minister explaining the bill and ends when there are no more speakers on the bill, or when the sponsoring minister speaks for a second time on the bill. In the House of Commons, debate at this and other stages may be ended by a time allocation motion, which restricts the amount of time to be spent on the bill. In the House of Commons only, a motion of closure may also end debate.

Three types of amendments may be proposed to the motion for second reading. The first is the six months' hoist: "That Bill [number and title] be not now read a second time but that it be read a second time this day six months hence". The second type is the reasoned amendment, which expresses specific reasons for opposing second reading. Finally, an amendment may be introduced to refer the subject-matter to a committee before the principle of the bill is approved. Such an amendment would read: "That the bill be not now read a second time but that the order be discharged, the bill withdrawn and the subject matter referred to the Standing Committee on...". No amendments may be made to the bill itself at this stage.

Committee Study

After approval in principle on second reading, a bill is referred to a committee for detailed review. This is normally a legislative committee but can be, on occasion, the Committee of the Whole or a standing or special committee.  Standing, special or legislative committees may receive briefs or hear witnesses, including the sponsoring minister, government officials, interest groups, and individuals. Each clause of the bill, its titles and its preamble (if there is one) are then considered, amended if necessary, and adopted by the committee. After consideration of a bill the committee orders that the bill be reported to the House.

Report Stage

The committee reports its findings, including proposed amendments, to the chamber in which the bill is being considered. Further amendments may be, and often are, proposed by the sponsoring minister or by any other member of the House at the report stage, subject to a written notice of 24 hours.

After the report stage amendments have been voted upon, the bill is ready for a third reading. In the House of Commons, third reading takes place at the next sitting of the House except that, with unanimous consent, it may be given immediately following the report stage. In the Senate, the third reading may take place immediately.

If the bill is reported by the committee without amendments, and if none are proposed by members of the House at the report stage,  third reading may take place immediately in the House of Commons, but must take place at a later date in the Senate. If several amendments are accepted at the report stage, the House may order that the bill be reprinted once more before third reading.

Third Reading

The third and final reading allows for a review of the bill in its final form. Debate on third reading is generally shorter than that on second reading but is essentially a repetition of it. The basic principles governing the acceptability of amendments at third reading are that they be strictly relevant to the bill and do not contradict the principle of the bill as passed at second reading. In addition, an amendment may be proposed to refer the bill back to committee to be further amended in a specific area, or to reconsider a certain clause or clauses.

Consideration by the Senate

Once a bill has had three readings in one house, it is then sent to the other House to be read, debated, and possibly amended, in a process similar to that which occurred in the first house. If one House amends a bill passed by the other, the first House is asked to concur in the amendments. If the first House cannot concur, reasons must be sent in writing to the second House. If the second House insists on its amendments, a conference may be held between representatives from each house and an attempt made to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is not resolved, the matter is dropped.

Royal Assent

Royal Assent signifies approval by the Crown and is required for any bill to become law after passage through both houses. Although the Governor General in person may give Royal Assent to major pieces of legislation (on behalf of the Queen), Royal Assent is normally conferred by a Deputy of the Governor General, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. Immediately upon Royal Assent, the bill becomes an Act of Parliament and has the force of law unless it contains a provision that it, or some of its provisions, should come into force on a specific day or on a day to be fixed by proclamation. The concluding section of a statute normally deals with its coming into force.

After a bill has received Royal Assent, it is assigned a statute chapter number (this has no relation to the bill number). Periodically, these new statutes are published throughout the year as issues of the Canada Gazette, Part III, prior to the publication of the annual bound volume of federal statutes for the calendar year. They are also posted on the Department of Justice's Laws website.

Proclamation

Where the coming into force of an Act is on a day to be fixed by proclamation, the minister responsible requests the issuance of a proclamation by the Governor-in-Council.  This is then sent to the Governor General for signature. Finally, it is published in the Canada Gazette. 

Private Bills

The process of private legislation as prescribed by the Standing Orders is somewhat different from public bills in that a private bill is introduced by means of a petition signed by the interested parties and presented in the House by a member who has agreed to sponsor it. "Parliamentary agents" are authorized to promote private bills and find sponsors. Members are forbidden to act as parliamentary agents or to accept payment for presenting bills. The sponsor must deposit a printed copy of the bill with the Clerk of the House by the first day of the session.

After approval of the petition, private bills are tabled, read a first time, printed, and ordered for second reading. As in the case of a public bill, debate at the second reading is on the general principle and expediency of the bill. Notice of private bills must be posted in the lobbies of the Parliament buildings before consideration in a committee, but the procedures for hearing witnesses and proposing amendments in committee are otherwise virtually identical for public and private bills. However, when an amendment that might harm the parties concerned is moved to a private bill, adequate notice must be given, and both the promoters of the bill and those opposed to it may be represented by counsel. The committee must report to the House on all bills referred to it. Consideration of the report by the House is the same for private and public bills, as are the rules governing third reading. Any further amendments adopted by the Senate are referred to the committee that considered the bill initially. If accepted, the amendments are read in the House a second time and, once agreed to, are returned to the Senate with a message informing that chamber accordingly. If the committee reports unfavourably, the House may continue to insist on its own amendments in its message to the other chamber. If an impasse occurs, a conference between the two chambers may be requested.

Status of Current Bills

It is crucial to be able to determine the various stages of a bill. Obviously, bills that have received third reading and Royal Assent may have the force of law even though they may not yet be published in the annual volume of statutes. They should, however, be available on the Department of Justice's Laws website within a short time of receiving Royal Assent.

Print Copies:

The Law Library and Stauffer Library have access to various versions of bills, either in print or online. If you are unsure of how to find a bill, please ask a reference librarian for assistance.

Electronic Copies:

The full text of federal bills for current and some previous sessions are accessible through the Parliament of Canada's LEGISinfo (1994-).

Repeal of Acts Not Declared In Force Within 10 Years

Under the Statutes Repeal Act, SC 2008, c 20 (in force since June 18, 2010), any Act or part of an Act that has not been declared in force within ten years of receiving royal assent will be repealed unless either House adopts a resolution that it not be repealed.