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The layout of an Act

The following section will help you to familiarise yourself with how an Act is set out.

Short title – this is the name by which the Act is known (and includes the year in which it was passed).  The short title appears on the front page, but there is also a section within the Act (usually either the first or the last section) which specifies what the short title is.

Long title – this appears on the first page after the contents page, immediately before section 1 of the Act.  The long title begins ‘An Act …’ and explains briefly the Act’s content. Some long titles are quite detailed and informative but others are brief and convey little. Although it may provide evidence of the purpose behind the Act, a long title is likely to be phrased in very general terms and so unlikely to help interpretation of substantive provisions within the Act.

Preamble - older pieces of legislation often include a preamble in place of the long title. A preamble describes the purpose of an Act, and tends to be more comprehensive than a long title. Senedd Acts, Assembly Acts and Measures do not contain preambles.

Enacting formula – although strictly speaking unnecessary Acts of the UK Parliament and Senedd Acts start with words of enactment that introduce the provisions of the Act which have legal effect. Most Acts of the UK Parliament are passed by both Houses of Parliament, and therefore have the following enacting formula:

BE IT ENACTED by the King's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-

The enacting formula used for Senedd Acts is as follows:

Having been passed by Senedd Cymru and having received the assent of His Majesty, it is enacted as follows:

Main body - the main body of an Act is divided into sections (1, 2, 3, etc.), subsections ((1), (2), (3), etc.), paragraphs ((a), (b), (c), etc.) and subparagraphs ((i), (ii), (iii), etc.). Each section has a heading, which is intended to indicate what that section is about and so may help the reader to identify the relevant provisions more quickly. The main body of an Act may be divided into Parts if it deals with a number of different matters, and Parts may be further subdivided into Chapters.

Overview – the first section within the main body of an Act (or Part of an Act) may provide an overview of the remainder of the Act (or Part). The purpose of such an overview is to summarise the content (providing context for the reader) and to help navigation around the Act or Part. An overview is not intended to have legal effect, unlike a section which sets out the purpose of an Act (something that is rare in UK legislation).

Defined terms – nearly all Acts define certain words or phrases so that they have a specific meaning for the purpose of the Act. Generally these terms can be found in an ‘Interpretation’ section at the end of the Act or the relevant Part of the Act, but if key terms may not be easily understood from their natural meaning they are increasingly defined at the beginning of an Act in order to help the reader understand the provisions that follow. Larger Acts often contain an Index of all terms that are defined, normally in a Schedule to the Act.

Coming into force (commencement) – Acts generally have a section near the end which sets out when or how the Act is to take effect (in subordinate legislation this is set out at the beginning).

Schedules - some Acts include Schedules, which come at the end. A Schedule may be used to house technical details, or more detailed provisions which could interrupt the flow of the text if included in the main body of the Act.  A Schedule may be sub-divided into Parts, and usually contains numbered paragraphs.

Explanatory notes – nearly all Acts of Parliament since 1999 and all Senedd Acts, Assembly Acts and Measures are accompanied by explanatory notes. Their purpose is to explain the Act without the need for legal or other specialised knowledge.

Published on
Last updated
09 September 2022