Law Making in the Northern Ireland Assembly

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 How does the Assembly make laws?

The Assembly has the power to make laws for Northern Ireland. A proposal for legislation is referred to as a “Bill” until it is passed by the Assembly and given Royal Assent. At this stage it becomes an Act of the Assembly. Ministers, Committees and individual Members can propose to introduce a Bill to the Assembly. If the Speaker believes that the proposals are within the Assembly’s competence, the Bill is introduced and debated by MLAs.

Assembly Chamber


PUBLIC BILLS : LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

Process


1.   Pre-Introduction Scrutiny

Bill submitted to the Speaker by the Minister or Member in charge.


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2. First Stage / Introduction

Bill’s title read out. Bill ordered to be printed.


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3.   Second Stage

Full debate on Bill’s general principles


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4.   Committee Stage

Bill referred to a Committee, except where accelerated passage granted.


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5.   Consideration Stage

Committee reports its findings and proposed amendments. Members vote on all selected amendments, and every clause and schedule. Bill reprinted if amendments made.


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6.   Further Consideration Stage

Second opportunity to amend Bill. Only amendments, not clauses or schedules, debated. Bill reprinted if amendments made.


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7.   Final Scrutiny

Bill referred to the Speaker for consideration under section 10(c) of the NI Act 1998.


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8.   Final Stage

Assembly debates whether to pass the Bill.

 
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9. Consideration by Attorney- General and Advocate-General

Bill referred to the AG and AGNI, who decide whether to refer it to Supreme Court for a ruling on legislative competence. If Supreme Court finds any provision to be incompetent, Bill returned to Assembly for Reconsideration Stage.

 
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10.   Reconsideration Stage

Happens only in exceptional cases. If amendments agreed to, Members vote on whether to approve the Bill as amended.


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11.   Royal Assent

Bill becomes law. Act printed.

 

STAGES OF A BILL

First Stage

A Minister or Member introduces the Bill to the Assembly. The Bill’s Long Title is read out but there is no debate or vote. This stage is formal and enables the Bill to be printed and published. Bills are usually available to the public on the Internet on the day of Introduction. Explanatory notes to accompany the Bill are usually available at the same time.

Second Stage

This is the first opportunity for all MLAs to debate the general principles of the Bill. Members may indicate the issues they are likely to want to debate in more detail at later stages.

The Minister or Member in charge of the Bill begins the debate by outlining the Bill’s objectives. Other Members, including the Chairperson of the relevant Committee, give their opinion. The Minister or Member in charge speaks last in the debate, in order to respond to questions and comments about the Bill. At the end of the debate, MLAs vote to decide whether to agree to the Bill’s Second Stage, meaning it can proceed to the next stage. The Assembly may reject the Bill if it disagrees with the general principles. If approved, the Bill is referred to the appropriate statutory Committee.

Committee Stage

This involves detailed consideration of the Bill. The Committee normally takes evidence from interested bodies (including the Government Department) and individuals. Committee members then scrutinise each clause and schedule of the Bill and discuss possible amendments (proposals for change) to it.

Committees have no power to amend a Bill but they prepare a report for the Assembly, including any proposals for amendments to the bill.

 Consideration Stage

The Bill is debated by the whole Assembly. MLAs vote on each clause, schedule and proposed amendment to the Bill.

Proposed amendments to a Bill at Consideration Stage are submitted to the Bill Office in time for publication in advance of the debate. On each day that amendments are tabled, they are published on a Notice of Amendments. Then after the deadline for tabling has passed, all amendments selected by the Speaker are published on a Marshalled List of Amendments.

There is no opening speech by the Minister or sponsoring Member at the start of Consideration Stage, but they will be called to “move” (formally propose) and speak about any amendments in their name, or to respond to amendments proposed or queries raised by other Members.

Amendments about related issues or parts of a Bill are usually grouped with each other so that they can be debated together. This means that a Consideration Stage debate usually involves several mini-debates about related amendments. But when it comes to voting, each amendment is voted on in strict numerical sequence, according to the order in which they impact on the Bill. There is one exception to this rule: the Bill’s Long Title and any amendments to it are always voted on last.

After the debate, the Marshalled List is updated to show the results of votes on each amendment.

 Further Consideration Stage

This is the final opportunity to amend the Bill. The amendments procedure is similar to that for Consideration Stage, but this time the debate is limited solely to new amendments. If there are no amendments, there is no debate.

 Final Stage

No date can be set for the Final Stage of a bill until:

  • The Speaker has considered the Bill and signified to the Minister or Member in charge that it may properly proceed to Final Stage; or
  • Where the Speaker refers the Bill to the Secretary of State, consent has been given for the Bill to proceed.

No amendments are debated at this stage. Members debate and vote on whether to pass the Bill.

After Final Stage, further checks must be carried out before the Bill can receive Royal Assent and become law, as detailed below.

 Consideration by Attorney-General and Advocate-General

Any Bill passed by the Assembly is referred to the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and the Advocate General. This allows the Attorney General and the Advocate General to determine whether to refer to the Supreme Court the question of whether a provision of the Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly.

The ordinary procedure is that, once it is confirmed by them that they do not intend to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court, the Speaker writes to the Secretary of State to request him to seek Royal Assent.

 Reconsideration Stage

This stage takes place only in exceptional circumstances, where the Supreme Court decides that a provision of the Bill is not within the legislative competence of the Assembly. Members consider only the amendments proposed to be made to the Bill. If amendments are agreed to, a vote is taken on whether to approve the Bill as amended.

 Royal Assent

Following all its stages in the Assembly, a Bill must receive Royal Assent before it can become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is a formal process whereby the Queen agrees to make the Bill into an Act.

The Speaker usually announces that a Bill has received Royal Assent at the next plenary sitting of the Assembly. The enacted law may come into effect at once, after a specified time or after a commencement order by a Minister. If there is no commencement order, the Act will come into force from midnight at the start of the day of the Royal Assent.

 Accelerated Passage:

Under the Accelerated Passage procedure, a Bill can pass all stages in as little as ten days, but in no less time. This process skips the Committee Stage. Accelerated Passage Procedure requires cross-community support within the meaning of the Act.

PRINTING AND MARSHALLING OF AMENDMENTS

You can find information on current Bills and Marshalled Lists or Notices of Amendments here.

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