29 Mar 2022

Decoding the names of bills

From The House , 6:55 pm on 29 March 2022

If you looked through Parliament’s list of hopeful laws-in-waiting you might get excited and decide for a career in politics. It’s not impossible. 

Alternatively you might fall asleep unexpectedly and crash your car (warning: never read legislation while driving). 

Less likely is being utterly confused about what these nascent laws are about. New Zealand legislation may not be excitingly named - but thankfully, those names actually make sense.

Chris Hipkins in the adjournment debate

Chris Hipkins in the adjournment debate Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The minister in charge of the government’s legislative programme, the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins, said this about New Zealand’s legislative names.

“One of the things about the New Zealand Parliament is we follow a very conventional approach when it comes to naming legislation, when it comes to the drafting of legislation. It’s not particularly political, and our statute book is a relatively high quality statute book as a result of that.”

Decoding the names of legislation

He’s right. Here’s an example of one way that “conventional approach” works. One bill currently being considered by Parliament is the Accident Compensation (Maternal Birth Injury and Other Matters) Amendment Bill.

Yes, bills have long, convoluted names - but there are reasons for that.

This bill ends with the words “Amendment Bill” which tells you that it will make changes to a law that already exists. 

That suffix also tells you that it isn’t agreed law yet. A “Bill” is legislation still under consideration. An agreed law is called an “Act”. 

The law it will amend is also listed there. That’s the first part of the name (“Accident Compensation”). So the bill will make changes to the Accident Compensation Act 2001. The date at the end of the act’s name tells you when the underlying legislation was originally passed. 

‘But what changes will it make?’ I hear you cry. (Call it an auditory hallucination if you must). 

The planned area of change is described in the brackets after the name of the act it will amend. In this case the Bill plans to make changes to how the ACC act deals with “Maternal Birth Injury” as well as a few related “other matters”. 

What it says on the box

And we can be pretty confident that the “other matters” in the title are related to that core intent because the rules for New Zealand laws are strict about that. Except in specific and special circumstances bills must have a single, unified policy objective.

New Zealand laws are really very WYSIWYG. They do what it says on the box. That also means that MPs can’t add unrelated provisions, or pork, or earmarks to law as is common in the US. Nothing extra is allowed. That rule must save a lot of money. 

When amendment bills are passed

When bills that are titled ‘amendment bills’ get passed and become law… they vanish. Fear not, all that effort wasn’t for nothing.

All the changes that the amendment bill wants to make to the core legislation are made and, job done, the bill melts away like Keyser Soze, or the Wicked Witch of the West.

As a result you will never see the word “amendment” in the name of an act. The now amended core legislation keeps its name, even if, like Washington’s Axe it is slowly, over the years, amended utterly. 

The plain old ‘bill’ bill

One more thing to note. If a bill does not say “Amendment” in its title it is either:

  • Entirely new law on a previously unlegislated area, or
  • It plans to so completely rewrite an existing act that calling it an amendment would be misleading.

For example this week Parliament looks likely to approve the Protected Disclosures (Protection of Whistleblowers) Bill.

Feel free to decode the name of that bill from what you now know.

In this case the Bill changes existing whistleblower legislation but rather than tweaking it, it just rewrites it entirely. So it drops the ‘amendment’ suffix.

If you want a description of the Bill you can listen to Chris Hipkins in the audio above.