Acts of Parliament

Acts of Parliament

Acts of Parliament (sometimes referred to as 'Statutes') are of two types. These are:   

  1. Public General Acts, and
  2. Local, Personal and Private Acts.           

Public General Acts apply equally to all the country (that is, to England and Wales; Scotland has always had a separate legal system). There are two kinds of general Acts, permissive and obligatory. Permissive Acts are those which merely allow, but do not compel, certain activities to take place. In the nineteenth century, such Acts were very common. The Public Health Act of 1848, for example, allowed local authorities to establish local boards of health and the Public Libraries Act of 1850 allowed local authorities to create library services, but did not compel them to do so. Obligatory legislation, in contrast, left individuals or organisations with no choice but to carry out the provisions of an Act. The type of Act can easily be identified by its language: the use of 'may' makes the legislation permissive, the use of 'shall' makes its provisions compulsory.

Local Acts regulate matters relating to a particular person or locality. So, for example, an Act authorising the construction of a canal, railway, or gas works, would be a local Act. Many kinds of personal and private Acts are now no longer necessary because they dealt with matters which are now the subject of general legislation. For example, it was once necessary for every foreigner who wish to acquire British citizenship to promote (at his own expense) his own naturalisation Act and before the mid-nineteenth century, divorce also required a personal Act. A large proportion of these Acts relate to family settlements amongst the landed classes.

Finding Acts of Parliament.

The House of Lords Record Office (the Parliamentary Archives) has the originals of all Acts of Parliament. The address is House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, telephone 0171 219 3074. eMail:

Doncaster Archives has sets of public general Acts from 1215 to 1734 (reference DZMD/564) and from 1840 to 1972 (reference : AB/CLERK/18), although with some years missing. It also has a variety of local Acts, by no means complete, in various archives (principally in AB/CLERK/2).

West Yorkshire Archive Service Headquarters has a complete series of public general Acts from the earliest times and of local and personal Acts from 1815. The address is:

Registry of Deeds, Newstead Road, Wakefield, WF1 2DE eMail:


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