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Law reform - role of Parliament

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Government departments and agencies

Government departments and agencies propose law reform, which is their departmental responsibility. 


For example, the Home Office has responsibility for criminal law reform and the criminal justice system.  It proposes laws and issue circulars (directives to police, courts etc.) in respect of the police. 


The Office of Fair Trading proposes and enforces laws on consumer issues.


The following is just a sample of government departments:

Home Office.
Department of Health.
Department for Education and Skills.
Equal Opportunities Commission.
Health and Safety Executive.
Office of Fair Trading.
Environment Agency.
Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs

Following public complaints about timeshare selling the Office of Fair Trading investigated and reported. What followed was the Timeshare Act 1992 now gives a consumer a right to cancel within 14 days, if a timeshare agreement is made with a business.


The Ministry of Justice (formerly the  Lord Chancellor's Department)

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has existed since 2007, its main role the efficient administration of justice. 


The MoJ oversees the programme of government civil legislation and answers to Parliament for the work of the Law Commission.


The MoJ roles include responsibility for:



probation and

constitutional affairs (including the judges)



Think-tanks are small groups that concentrate on issues and advise governments, either on a national level or global. 


They are normally not government departments but independent.  It is their independence that makes them highly influential.


The Guardian has published a comprehensive report on most of the major Think-tanks, here

Centre-right of politics: -
The Centre for Policy Studies, the
Institute of Economic Affairs and Demos.

Centre of politics: -
The Social Market Foundation
and The Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Centre-left: -
The Institute for Public Policy Research
and the Fabian Society.


The Offences Against the Person Bill - an example of law reform in practice

Offences Against the Person Act 1861

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 was a consolidating act and relied on even older legislation and court decisions.  The Act is full of antiquated language and confusion.

Draft Bill

The Law Commission produced a draft bill based on a report in 1993 (Draft Criminal Law Bill).


Legislating the Criminal Code: Offences against the Person and General Principles (Report) [1993] EWLC 218 (01 January 1993)

Examples of the proposed changes:

Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

Becomes ‘Serious Injury’.

Malicious and Wounding

The words are avoided altogether.

The existing section 18 (GBH with intent)

Becomes ‘Intentionally Causing Serious Injury’. (Clause 1) and carries life imprisonment.

The existing section 20 (GBH and wounding)

Becomes ‘Recklessly Causing Serious Injury’. (Clause 2) and carries 7 years imprisonment.

The existing section 47 (ABH, actual bodily harm)

Becomes ‘Intentionally or recklessly causing injury’. (Clause 3) and carries 5 years imprisonment.


Means assault and battery (Clause 4), this clarifies the current common law confusion.

Final Draft Bill

The Home Office produced a consultation document in 1998.  Nothing happened and it is expected that the new Bill will be modelled on the 1993 Law Commission Report.

Influences within Parliament

Successful Private members' bills

Unsuccessful Private members' bills

Laurie Pavitt MP

Secured a place in the private members' ballot in 1981 proposed an unsuccessful Tobacco Advertising Bill 1981.

John Corrie MP

Unsuccessful Abortion (Amendment) Bill 1979 based on proposals from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC).

Private member's bills on hunting

There have been many Private Member's Bills covering hunting, these maintained the momentum for change which eventually occurred:

  • 1949 two private members bills failed.

  • 1991 Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill introduced by Kevin McNamara MP; fell at second reading

  • 1994 Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill introduced by John McFall MP; defeated in the Lords.

  • 1998 Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill; introduced by Michael Foster MP failed due to lack of Parliamentary time

  • 1999 Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill; introduced by Ken Livingstone was talked out.

A private member's bills introduced in the Scottish Parliament, Mike Watson's bill led to the banning of hunting in Scotland in 2002.


Other influences

Parliamentary Advisers

Some groups offer financial or other support to MPs, by appointing them as "Parliamentary advisers" to represent that the groups' interests in Parliament.

Parliamentary committees

Numerous committees investigate various aspects of law reform from time to time.  Some of these committees are more powerful than others.


Select Committee of the House of Lords

In July 1988 it recommended that the sentence for murder be changed from a fixed sentence of life imprisonment to a maximum of life imprisonment.  This change did not take place, twenty years on the matter is still be considered.

House of Commons Home Affairs Committee

Recommended in December 1995 that the mandatory life sentence should stay.


In 2007 a further consultation on murder was announced.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has been constituted as a standing body with its members appointed for up to three years. It is a very powerful body and members of Parliament try and avoid falling foul of it.


It is responsible for initiating Codes of Conduct for MPs, Government Ministers, and all holders of other public office, including local authorities.

Lord Nolan became the Committee’s first Chairman, on 10 November 1997.

The Ninth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life published in April 2003, defined the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the permanent Civil Service.


The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was set up by the House of Commons in 1995 as a result of recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.


The Commissioner is appointed by the House of Commons for a period of three years.


The Commissioners' responsibilities include:

A Minister of Justice

The Haldane Committee in 1918 suggested that there should be a Minister of Justice in charge of the legal system.


The Haldane Report acknowledged that the drawing of clearly lines around a department’s activities was in practice an impossible task such was the need for ‘co-operation between Departments in dealing with business of common interest’ (Haldane 1918: 16).

The Report proposed ten main divisions one of which would be Justice.


In May 2007, the Ministry of Justice combined the Lord Chancellor's Department and some Home Office functions


[H.Woolf ‘Judicial Review - the tensions between the executive and the judiciary’ (1998) 114 LQR 579]

Before the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor occupied a seat in the cabinet, the House of Lords and the Judiciary, which flew in the face of the separation of powers.


Lord Woolf defended the position of the Lord Chancellor being part of each of the three organs of the states;

"As a member of the Cabinet, he (the Lord Chancellor) can act as an advocate on behalf of the courts and the justice system. He can explain to his colleagues in the Cabinet the proper significance of a decision which they regard as being distasteful in consequence of an application for judicial review. He can, as a member of the Government, ensure that the courts are properly resourced. On the other hand, on behalf of the Government, he can explain to the judiciary the realities of the political situation and the constraints on the resources which they must inevitably accept.

As long as the Lord Chancellor is punctilious in keeping his separate roles distinct, the separation of powers is not undermined and the justice system benefits immeasurably. The justice system is better served by having the head of the judiciary at the centre of Government than it would be by having its interests represented by a Minister of Justice who would lack these other roles."

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