One of the cool aspects of my job is that I get to work in different legislative traditions around the world. Sometimes it feels like a bit of an archeological dig, uncovering the history of how a jurisdiction came to be. Traditions are layered upon other traditions to result in unique practices that are clearly derived from one another.
While I am no scholar in the subject and I’ve yet to come across any definitive description of the subject, I find exploring the subject quite fascinating.
So far I’ve come across four distinct, but related, legislative traditions:
- The Westminster-inspired traditions found in the UK and around the world in the far reaches of the former British Empire.
- The U.S. Federal traditions which are a distinct variant of UK inspired legislation, but which have come quite different and complex in comparison. I think that the structure of the U.S. government, as specified by the U.S. Constitution, has led to substantial evolution of legislative practices.
- The U.S. state’s tradition, which are also a distinct variant of UK inspired legislation, but which have changed largely thanks to legislative reforms in the mid-twentieth century.
- European traditions which are largely similar to Westminster, but which tend to have their own unique twist, sometimes dating back to Roman times.
I generally simplify the four traditions based on few key characteristics which I find to be key distinguishers. It’s like looking at DNA and, while finding that a lot of the sequences remain the same, the are a few key differences that will reveal the genealogy of the jurisdiction.
UK traditions are generally layers and layers of statutes which are the law of the land. Bills either lay down new laws or amend existing law. Bills that only amend existing laws are often known as amending bills. It often seems that there are around seven hundred to a thousand base statutes. Subsidiary or secondary legislation, as in rules, regulations, etc., are quite closely related to primary legislation and is quite similar in structure.
US Federal traditions start the very slow process of re-compiling statutes as a single large code, the U.S. Code. As this process has been very slow and arduous, the result is a hybrid system with both a code and with statutes. The separation of powers causes subsidiary legislation to be far more distinct and the relationship to primary legislation is much less obvious.
U.S. States have also adopted codes (or in some cases, revised statutes) as a means to tidy up and arrange the laws in a more orderly fashion. In general, this task was undertaken in the mid-twentieth century and is complete. Another reform that came at the same time was a forced simplification of bills. Whereas Federal bills can become gigantic omnibus bills with lats