My understanding of the private bill procedure is that it was established to protect the public against the uncontrolled granting of special powers to private interests. I believe that there is no quarrel about this interpretation.
The distinction between public and private legislation has been inherited from British practice.1 Private bills differ from public bills by their intent, content and method of passage. By definition, the purpose or intent of a private bill is to confer special powers or benefits upon one or more persons or body of persons, or to exclude one or more persons or body of persons from the general application of the law. A public bill may be broadly described as a bill which deals with a matter of public policy for the benefit of the community at large and is introduced directly by a Member of the House. On the other hand, a private bill relates directly to the affairs of an individual or group of individuals, including a corporation, named in the bill; the bill seeks something which cannot be obtained by means of the general law and is founded on a petition from an individual or group of individuals.2
Private bills must not be confused with private Members’ bills. Although private bills are sponsored by private Members, the term “private Member’s bill” refers only to public bills dealing with a matter of public policy introduced by Members who are not Ministers.
Private bills are subject to special rules in both Houses of Parliament. Since private bills ask Parliament to adjudicate upon the interests of private parties and to be watchful over the interests of the public, they are said to involve Parliament in both a judicial capacity and a legislative capacity:
“In passing Private Bills, while Parliament still exercises its legislative functions, its proceedings also partake also [sic] of a judicial character; the parties interested in such bills appear as suitors, while those who apprehend injury are admitted as adverse parties to the suit. Much of the formality of a Court of Justice is maintained; conditions are required to be observed and their observance proved by the promoters of a bill, and if they abandon it and no other parties take it up, the bill is dropped, however sensible the House may be of its value”.3
Private bills can originate in either the House of Commons or the Senate, although most private bills originate in the Senate where the fees and charges imposed on the promoter are lower.4 Private bills must pass through the basic stages common to all legislation; they must also meet certain parliamentary requirements which distinguish them procedurally from all other types of bills.
Private bill procedure is unique in its origins, forms and principles and has changed very little since 1867. While they are now relatively rare, private bills once constituted a large part of the legislative business of the House. In the early years of Confederation, the House dealt with a large volume of private legislation to establish companies to build and operate railways and to incorporate interprovincial companies since no other legal authority allowed such corporations to be formed. In addition, private bills requesting the dissolution of marriages occupied much of the House’s time because Parliament had been granted the exclusive jurisdiction to legislate with respect to marriage and divorce.
Today, private legislation accounts for only a minuscule percentage of House business.5 Most private bills now deal with the incorporation of, or amendments to the acts of incorporation of, religious, charitable and other organizations and of insurance, trust and loan companies.6 In recent years, private legislation has been used for the amalgamation of insurance companies and the revival of small business corporations which had previously been dissolved.7 Although the reasons for this decrease in the passage of private bills vary, it is to a large degree due to changes to the general law, such as the Dissolution and Annulment of Marriages Act in 1963,8 and the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act in 1990,9 and administrative mechanisms found in present acts such as the Canadian Commercial Corporation Act,10 the Canada Corporations Act11 and the Bank Act12.
Since then, a few changes have been made to the rules pertaining to private bills. In June 1994, the House removed the requirements for petitions for private bills to be filed within the first six weeks of a session and for private bills to be presented within two weeks of a favourable report on the petition.13 In June 2005, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was given responsibility, through an amendment to Standing Order 108(3)(a)(iv), for the consideration of business related to private bills.14
This chapter explains in general terms the kinds of bills classed as private, describes the principles of private bill procedure and how they are applied, and gives an overview of the particularities of the legislative process for such bills in the House of Commons.15