Background to statute law revision

What is it?

Our SLR work involves repealing statutes that are no longer of practical utility.  The purpose is to modernise and simplify the statute book, thereby reducing its size and thus saving the time of lawyers and others who use it.  This in turn helps to avoid unnecessary costs. It also stops people being misled by obsolete laws that masquerade as live law.  If an Act features still in the statute book and is referred to in text-books, people reasonably enough assume that it must mean something.

Who does it?

Our SLR work is carried out by the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission pursuant to section 3(1) of the Law Commissions Act 1965.  Section 3(1) imposes a duty on both Commissions to keep the law under review “with a view to its systematic development and reform, including in particular ... the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, the reduction of the number of separate enactments and generally the simplification and modernisation of the law”.

Statute Law (Repeals) Bill

Implementation of the Commissions’ SLR proposals is by means of special Statute Law (Repeals) Bills.  19 such Bills have been enacted since 1965 repealing more than 3,000 whole Acts and achieving partial repeals in thousands of others. Broadly speaking the remit of a Statute Law (Repeals) Bill extends to any enactment passed at Westminster.  Accordingly it is capable of repealing obsolete statutory text throughout the United Kingdom (i.e. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).


The Law Commission consults widely before finalising its repeal proposals.  The purpose of consulting is to secure as wide a range of views on the proposals as is practicable from all categories of persons who may be affected by the proposals.  So the consultation may be with central or local government, organisations, trade bodies, individuals or anyone else who appears to have an interest in a proposal.

So far as consulting central government is concerned, any Department or agency with an interest in the subject matter of the repeal proposal will be invited to comment.  Because obsolete legislation often extends throughout the United Kingdom it may be necessary to invite comments from several different Departments.  So the following will routinely be consulted -

The English Department or Departments with policy responsibility for the subject matter of the proposed repeal (this responsibility will extend to Scotland in appropriate cases)

The Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office (unless the proposed repeal relates only to England)

The Scottish Government and the Scotland Office (if the proposed repeal extends to Scotland)

The Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office (if the proposed repeal extends to Northern Ireland).

Selection of repeal candidates

Candidates for repeal are selected on the basis that they are no longer of practical utility.  Usually this is because they no longer have any legal effect on technical grounds - because they are spent, unnecessary or obsolete.  But sometimes they are selected because, although they strictly speaking do continue to have legal effect, the purposes for which they were enacted either no longer exist or are nowadays being met by some other means.

Provisions commonly repealed by Statute Law (Repeals) Acts include the following-

(a) references to bodies, organisations, etc. that have been dissolved or wound up or which have otherwise ceased to serve any purpose;

(b) references to issues that are no longer relevant as a result of changes in social or economic conditions (e.g. legislation about tithes or tin mines);

(c) references to Acts that have been superseded by more modern (or EU) legislation or by international Convention;

(d) references to statutory provisions (i.e. sections, schedules, orders, etc.) that have been repealed;

(e) repealing provisions e.g. “Section 33 is repealed/shall cease to have effect”;

(f) commencement provisions once the whole of an Act is in force;

(g) transitional or savings provisions that are spent;

(h) provisions that are self-evidently spent - e.g. a one-off statutory obligation to do something becomes spent once the required act has duly been done;

(i) powers that have never been exercised over a period of many years or where any previous exercise is now spent.

General savings

Much SLR work is possible because of the general savings provisions of section 16(1) of the Interpretation Act 1978.  This provides that where an Act repeals an enactment, the repeal does not (unless the contrary intention appears) -

“(a) revive anything not in force or existing at the time at which the repeal takes effect;

(b) affect the previous operation of the enactment repealed or anything duly done or suffered under that enactment;

(c) affect any right, privilege, obligation or liability acquired, accrued or incurred under that enactment;

(d) affect any penalty, forfeiture or punishment incurred in respect of any offence committed against that enactment;

(e) affect any investigation, legal proceeding or remedy in respect of any such right, privilege, obligation, liability, penalty, forfeiture or punishment;

and any such investigation, legal proceeding or remedy may be instituted, continued or enforced, and any such penalty, forfeiture or punishment may be imposed, as if the repealing Act had not been passed”.

Gradual obsolescence

The obsolescence of statutes tends to be a gradual process. Usually there is no single identifiable event that makes a statute obsolete.  The Statute Law (Repeals) Act 2013 contained many examples of legislation being overtaken by social and economic changes.  Several 18th and 19th century Acts establishing charities to run hospitals for the poor and sick became unnecessary once the hospitals became absorbed by the National Health Service in 1948.  The Sale of Offices Acts 1551 and 1809, which outlawed the sale for profit of certain public offices and positions, gradually became unnecessary because of changes in the methods of appointment and recruitment to public office in the 20th century.  And all the 18th and 19th century laws establishing workhouses for the parish poor gradually became obsolete when responsibility for the poor and sick passed from the parish to central government during the first half of the 20th century.

Even within individual statutes, the obsolescence tends to be gradual.  Some provisions fade away more quickly than others.  These include commencement and transitory provisions and ‘pump-priming’ provisions (e.g. initial funding and initial appointments to a Committee) to implement the new legislation.  Next to go may be order-making powers that are no longer needed.  Then the Committee established by the Act no longer meets and can be abolished. However, other provisions may be unrepealable for generations, particularly if they confer pensions rights or confer security of tenure or employment rights.  Other provisions may be virtually unrepealable ever.  Much of English property law relies on medieval statutes such as Quia Emptores (1290) which is regarded as one of the pillars of the law of real property. This last example usefully shows that just because a statute is ancient it is not necessarily obsolete.

Help from consultees

Sometimes it is impossible to tell whether a provision is repealable without factual information that is not readily ascertainable without ‘inside’ knowledge of a Department or other organisation.  Examples of this include savings or transitional provisions which are there to preserve the status quo until an office-holder ceases to hold office or until repayment of a loan has been made. In cases like these the repeal notes drafted by the Law Commissions often invite the organisation being consulted to supply the necessary information.  Any help that can be given to fill in the gaps is much appreciated.