The Classification of Bills in the House of Commons

Wayne Cole
(Terminology Update, Volume 19, Number 2, 1986, page 1)

Adopting legislation is one of the principal functions of the Canadian Parliament. The purpose of this article is to present the usual manners of classifying proposed legislation and to point out some of the difficulties which arise in attempting to establish adequate French terminology for what is still, in most respects, a British system of government.

Proposed legislation is presented to the House of Commons in the form of a bill, which may be defined as:

(…) a draft of a legislative proposal which, when it has been passed through its various stages in both Houses and received the Royal Assent, becomes an Act of Parliament, or statute.Footnote 1

Because of differences in political tradition, there is no exact equivalent in the French language for the term "bill". Until quite recently, "bill" was used in both French and English at the federal level. Recent usage indicates that projet de loi is now being used as the equivalent for "bill".Footnote 2

Replacing "bill" in this way is not an entirely straightforward matter. It is necessary to carefully distinguish the meaning given to "projet de loi" in Canada from that given to it in France. In Canada, as we have noted, "projet de loi" may be used, generally, of any piece of proposed legislation. In France, however, the term has a much more restricted meaning:

(…) texte de loi élaboré par le gouvernement et dont il demande le vote par le Parlement.Footnote 3

Here we encounter one of the two principal ways of classifying a bill, viz, according to its origin. In Canada, a bill introduced by a minister of the Crown is called a government bill (projet de loi émanant du gouvernement). A bill not officially sponsored by the Government is called a private member’s bill (projet de loi d’initiative parlementaire). A private member’s bill may be introduced either by a member of an opposition party or by a backbench MP on the government side of the House.

Although the French parliamentary system makes a similar distinction between government and private member’s bills, the basic terminology used differs somewhat from Canadian usage; projet de loi is used in France to refer exclusively to government bills. A private member’s bill in the French parliament is called a proposition de loi.

When bills are introduced in the Canadian House of Commons, they are not explicitly labelled as government or private member’s bills. The two sorts of bills are, however, numbered differently. Those numbered from 1 to 200 are government bills, while those numbered from 201 to 1000 are private members’ bills. For example, Bill C-64 is a government bill, while Bill C-264 is a private member’s bill.Footnote 4

One important difference between government and private members’ bills is that only government bills may involve the raising or spending of money. The general term for any bill of this sort is money bill (mesure financière). Although, in France, projet de loi de finance is used in nearly the same sense, it is important not to confuse this term with that used in Canada. In the French system, such a piece of legislation may provide for both the raising and spending of funds. In Canada, on the other hand, these two activities must be the subject of separate pieces of legislation. A Canadian "money bill" may be either a supply or appropriation bill (projet de loi de crédits) or a piece of taxation or ways-and-means legislation.

The second way in which bills may be classified is based upon the general nature of their object. A bill dealing with a matter affecting the public at large is called a public bill (projet de loi d’intérêt public, or simply projet de loi public). A private bill (not to be confused with a private member’s bill) is one which exempts a person or a group of persons from the application of the law. The equivalents used in Canada for "private bill" are projet de loi d’intérêt privé or projet de loi privé. No such distinction between public and private bills exists in the French parliamentary system.

These two manners of classifying bills are not mutually exclusive. Often, a bill is designated with respect to both its origin and its content. As a matter of convention, ministers of the Crown do not introduce private bills, so, in practice, there are only three classes of bills in the House of Commons.

The most important class, in terms of the likelihood of becoming law, is the government public bill (projet de loi d’intérêt public émanant du gouvernement). As all government bills are public in scope, it is usual to refer to them simply as "government bills".

A private member’s bill may be either a private member’s public bill (projet de loi d’intérêt public et d’initiative parlementaire) or a private member’s private bill (projet de loi d’intérêt privé et d’initiative parlementaire). Because members of the government do not introduce private legislation, private members’ private bills are frequently called "private bills", without further qualification. Thus, in most instances when reference is made to a "private member’s bill", it is a "private member’s public bill" which is meant.

The accompanying table gives a summary of the above classification of bills.

One final point should be made concerning the English term "bill". In some cases, particularly when a piece of proposed legislation has become widely known during its pasasge through Parliament, a bill may continue to be referred to as such, even after it has passed into law (e.g. , Quebec’s Bill 101). While this sense of "bill" is perfectly acceptable in English, the parallel does not hold true in French. The correct French term for a bill which has become an Act of Parliament is loi (not "projet de loi") regardless of whether or not it is still referred to as a "bill" in English.

Selected Bibliography

Beauchesne, Arthur. Beauchesne’s Rules and Forms of the House of Commons of Canada: With Annotations, Comments and Precedents. 5th ed. (edition) by Alistair Fraser, G.A. Birch and W.F. Dawson. Toronto: Carswell, 1978.

Beauchesne, Arthur. Règlement annoté et formulaire de la Chambre des communes du Canada. 5eéd. ref. et mise au courant de la jurisprudence avec notes et comment. par Alistair Fraser, G.A. Birch and W.F. Dawson, texte franç. établi par Raymond Robichaud. Montréal : Wilson et Lafleur, 1978.

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Permanent and Provisional Standing Orders of the House of Commons September 9, 1985/Règlement de la Chambre des communes, articles permanents et provisoires, 9 septembre 1985. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer for Canada.

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Committees and Private Legislation Directorate. Committees of the House of Commons of Canada: Practical Guide/Les comités de la Chambre des communes du Canada : guide pratique. Ottawa, 1985.

Canada. Parliament. Senate. Rules of the Senate of Canada/Règlement du Sénat du Canada. Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1983.

Canada. Terminology Directorate. Translation Bureau. Secretary of State. Glossary: Parliamentary Proceedings/Lexique : Activité parlementaire. Ottawa: Communications Services, Translation Bureau, 1982.

Colpron, Gilles. Dictionnaire des anglicismes. Montréal : Beauchemin, 1982.

Dagenais, Gérard. Dictionnaire des difficultés de la langue française au Canada. 2eéd. Boucherville : éd. françaises, 1984.

Grand dictionnaire encyclopédique Larousse. Paris : Larousse, c1982-1985, 10 volume

May, Thomas Erskine. Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, privileges, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament. 20thed. (editor) Sir Charles Gordon. London: Butterworths, 1983.

McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politicis: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. Toronto: Wiley, c1980.

Robert, Paul. Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française. 2 éd., ent. rev. et enrichie par Alain Rey. Paris : Le Robert, 1985.

Classification of bills

According to Origin

  1. Government bill (1-200) – projet de loi émanant du gouvernement (France : projet de loi)
    • money bill mesure financière (France : projet de loi de finance)
    • supply bill; appropriation bill – projet de loi de crédits
  2. private member’s billprojet de loi d’initiative parlementaire (France : proposition de loi)

According to Nature

  1. Bills affecting the public at large:
    • public billprojet de loi d’intérêt public (or: projet de loi public)
  2. Bills affecting individuals:
    • Private billprojet de loi d’intérêt privé (or: projet de loi privé)

According to Origin and Nature

  1. Government bills:
    • government public bill – projet de loi d’intérêt public émanant du gouvernement
  2. Private members’ bills:
    • private members’ public bill (often: private member’s bill)projet de loi d’intérêt public et d’initiative parlementaire
    • private member’s private bill (often: private bill) – projet de loi d’intérêt privé et d’initiative parlementaire

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