The Why of a Legislative Change

One of the tasks a law librarian might carry out is legislation monitoring. At the Field Libraries we keep a detailed spreadsheet of which bills lawyers or clients may want status updates for, we monitor legislation from any jurisdiction and we email interested parties whenever there is a status change for a bill. We also watch for regulations, proclamations, government news releases and other published legislation hints. It is one of those tasks that is best carried out by a small organized team so that only the relevant information is disseminated to the many. I confess to a geeky interest in the legislative process.

One of the most interesting questions that comes to mind when looking at a new bill is “Why are they doing that?” This is different than legislative intent, more a question of legislative motivation.

Sometimes the sound bite title of a bill will offer some fairly clear political motivation for a legislative change, like these bills from the current federal parliament the example:

  • C-16 An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Ending House Arrest for Property and Other Serious Crimes by Serious and Violent Offenders Act)
  • C-23B An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts (Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act)
  • C-50 An Act to amend the Criminal Code (interception of private communications and related warrants and orders) (Improving Access to Investigative Tools for Serious Crimes Act)
  • S-6 An Act to amend the Criminal Code and another Act (Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime Act)

It is clear from the short titles listed above that our federal government is serious about crime.

Federally, there are also very useful information pieces attached to most bills via LEGISinfo – departmental information, legislative summaries, and links to debates about the bill. For regulatory changes on the federal level, new regulations have a regulatory impact analysis attached with the regulation’s publication in Canada Gazette Part II. These easy tools can often give pretty clear hints on legislative motivation.

For Alberta, and other provinces, information on the WHY behind a legislative change is more elusive. Current and historical Alberta Bills and their status are available from the Legislative Assembly website. Assembly documents such as a searchable Hansard (like the federal debates) are also available from the site.

To find the motivation behind a provincial legislative change, a broader search strategy is required. If you are lucky government news releases, newspaper articles, case law, policy papers or law reform publications will give some background.

For a movitation search example, I offer up Bill 8, Alberta’s new Missing Persons Act. Without the government news release, the need for the bill and the policy reasons for it’s drafting could be unclear.

I leave it to the lawyer readers whether the text of the bill makes sense and whether the motivation for this legislative change is met by its drafting.

Is there any special place you search for the legislative why?


  1. Great article.

    Before getting into the background work of deducing the motivational why, I start by considering how my client would be impacted by the bill and whether the bill needs to be passed for that impact to occur. On the latter point consider that some government and most private member bills stand little chance of passage on a timely basis, if they pass at all, so the global motivational “why” may simply be to draw attention to an issue or foster debate that leads to non-legislative action. Like a lot of government action, the early stages of the legislative process can be for show or to provoke change without the full exercise of power.

    If the mere tabling of the bill has to potential to influence, then I’ve found the best place to start understanding the \why\ is outside government. Your list of non-governmental sources (\news releases, newspaper articles, case law, policy papers or law reform publications\) is pretty comprehensive and certainly among the primary sources worth checking to deduce legislative motivation. To your list I would add the Twitter accounts and homepages of the sponsoring legislator(s) and cabinet ministers, as all politicians love to share their exploits with the folks back in the riding. In an extension of the same logic, you could also look to policy statements or posted speeches on the homepage of the sponsoring political party.

    As a bill progresses, however, the motivational why becomes much clearer and the ease with which it can be deduced much simpler – to the point where, typically at second reading, the stated motivation is usually laid bare and available for all to read in Hansard.

  2. The sources mentioned by Shauna and Colin are likely to be useful.

    As an Ontario supplement: Ontario bills are on the Legislative Assembly web site (even after they are passed). The page for a government bill has a section called ‘background’ that contains at least the press release and background document released when the bill is given first reading, and sometimes other material. For example, Bill 65, the Not-for-profit Corporations Act, has on its background page a consultation paper released as the bill was being developed.

    First reading versions of government bills have an explanatory note, which is supposed to be a plain language explanation of the bill, though not a higher-level overview. The first reading version is available on the bill’s page on the site mentioned, even after it is passed.

    A document that may often be useful is what is called a ‘compendium’. The Standing Orders s.33(c) requires one to be filed in the House with all government bills. There is no fixed form for this document, but it is intended to tell MPPs what the bill is for. Some such documents are more non-partisan than others. After a bill is introduced, it seems to me that the compendium is a public document (since the subject-matter critics of the opposition parties have had a chance to see it and thus give it to anyone they want), though it is not routinely published, e.g. on the Assembly’s web site. It would be available on request from the sponsoring ministry, at least on an access to information request, and sometimes informally.

  3. A real goldmine can be pre-legislative work such as white or green papers, royal commissions, budget consultation documents, etc. These documents are usually found in the Sessional Papers of a legislature, and may escape notice. I find that you occasionally stumble across them via Hansard references.

  4. Further to John’s comment, the explanatory notes for Ontario public (as opposed to private) bills that receive Royal Assent after 1999 may also be found in the Source Law section of e-Laws website (