Making new laws is one of the main tasks of the Oireachtas. A draft of a proposed new law is called a Bill. Once a Bill is signed into law by the President, it becomes an Act and is added to the Statute Book. The Oireachtas passes approximately 40 Acts each year.
While Bills are usually initiated by the Government, Opposition parties and Senators may also introduce Bills. The exceptions are money Bills and Bills to amend the Constitution, which can be initiated only in the Dáil.
Before a Bill can be enacted, it must be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad. In order to be passed, a Bill must go through several distinct Stages in each House.
A Bill that is initiated by a Minister or TD is debated first in the Dáil. If the Dáil passes the Bill, it is then debated in the Seanad. A Bill initiated by a Senator is debated first in the Seanad and then in the Dáil. Only when both Houses have passed a Bill can the President sign it into law.
If the Dáil passes a Bill, the Seanad can delay its becoming law, not stop it. For example, if the Seanad rejects a Bill or makes amendments that the Dáil does not accept, the Bill will lapse after 180 days. However, the Dáil has the power, within those 180 days, to pass a resolution declaring that the Bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses.
The Government implements its annual budget by introducing and enacting a Finance Bill and a Social Welfare Bill each year.
If the Government wants to repeal or change an existing law, it does so by creating a new Act. For example, the Children Act 2001 repealed several laws including the Children Act 1908, and the Children (Amendment) Act 2015 amended the Children Act 2001 to amalgamate the child detention schools.
The Government may also need to introduce legislation to enact European Union laws or decisions by the European courts. For example, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Act 2013 was passed to implement the EU Trafficking Directive.
The legislative process
Before a Bill
Before the Government publishes a Bill, there is usually a consultation process.
The relevant Department may publish a Green Paper setting out the Government’s ideas and inviting opinions from individuals and organisations. For example, the Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland was launched in May 2014 and 1,200 submissions were made during the consultation process.
Before a Bill is finalised, a general scheme of the Bill may be published, and this is often called the heads of the Bill.
The relevant Oireachtas committee may invite stakeholders to participate in the pre-legislative scrutiny of a new law by attending committee meetings to discuss the heads of the Bill. For example, during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2015, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children heard from adoptive parents, birth mothers, birth parents, foster parents and adoption agencies.
Passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas
The Bill is initiated.
In general, Bills may be initiated in either the Dáil or the Seanad. However, money Bills and Bills to amend the Constitution must be initiated in the Dáil while private Bills can be initiated only in the Seanad.
There are two ways for Members to initiate a Bill. They may present a Bill to the House without prior permission of the House, or they may ask the House for leave to introduce the Bill.
When a Bill is presented, provided it complies with Standing Orders, it is automatically added to the Order Paper and it proceeds to Second Stage.
When a Member seeks leave to introduce a Bill, the House may or may not grant leave. If leave is granted, the Bill is added to the Order Paper and proceeds to Second Stage.
In the Dáil, the Government may present Bills. Other Deputies may also present Bills, but must do so as a group of seven or more Deputies, and each group may present only one Bill at a time. In the Seanad, the Leader of the Seanad may present a Bill on behalf of the Government. Groups of five or more Senators may also present up to three Bills at a time.
In the Dáil, any Member may seek leave to introduce a Bill, while in the Seanad, it takes three Senators to introduce each Bill. There is no limit to the number of Bills a Member may seek leave to introduce.
The general principles of the Bill are debated.
Members are allocated a limited amount of time to make a statement on the law the Bill would create. They may also suggest other provisions they would like to be included in the Bill.
At the end of Second Stage, the House may, or may not, agree to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. A Member may call for a division on the question by saying “Vótáil”.
Third Stage – Committee Stage
The Bill is examined section by section and amendments may be made.
Committee Stage is a detailed examination of each section of the Bill and an opportunity for Government and Opposition Members to make changes to the text. Committee Stage in the Dáil is usually taken in an Oireachtas select committee.
Once each section of the Bill has been agreed to, the Bill is set down for Report Stage.
Before Committee Stage, Members who want to change a Bill may put down amendments, and a list of the amendments is published. During the Committee Stage debate, Members are called on to move each amendment and discuss it with the Minister.
There is no limit to the number of times a Member may speak on an amendment, so Committee Stage can be lengthy. The Minister then says whether he or she accepts the amendment. A Member who disagrees with the Minister’s decision on an amendment may call for a division by saying “Vótáil”.
Fourth Stage – Report Stage
Amendments arising out of Committee Stage are considered.
Report Stage is the last opportunity for Members to make amendments to the text of a Bill. Members may not bring forward any new amendments, only amendments which arise from Committee Stage. Unlike Committee Stage, Members may speak only twice on each amendment, and their second contribution is limited to two minutes.
When all the amendments have been dealt with, the Bill is received for final consideration. Fifth Stage may be scheduled for another day, but is usually taken immediately after Fourth Stage.
If the Government wants to introduce new amendments on Report Stage, it may do so by recommitting the Bill. Effectively this returns the Bill to Committee Stage in respect of an individual amendment.
Fifth Stage – Final Stage
The Bill is passed by the House.
Fifth Stage often follows directly after Report Stage. No amendments may be tabled and there is generally no in-depth discussion of the Bill. Instead, Members usually make short statements on whether the Bill would constitute good law. Then the House agrees to pass the Bill, and a Member may call a division by saying “Vótáil”.
If the Bill has not already been passed by the other House, it is set down for Second Stage there and it must go through the subsequent Stages there. If it has been passed by the other House, the Bill is ready to be enacted.
If the Seanad makes amendments to a Bill initiated in the Dáil, the amendments are returned to the Dáil for consideration in Committee. The Dáil may accept or reject the amendments, and may make further amendments on Report Stage.
The Bill is signed into law by the President.
Once a Bill has been passed by the Dáil and Seanad, the President signs it into law. It becomes an Act and is added to the Statute Book.
Some Acts come into force immediately, while others are commenced on a later date by the relevant Minister.
In certain rare circumstances, the President has the power to decline to sign a Bill. The President consults with the Council of State before taking such a decision.
All laws must be compatible with the Constitution. The President may refer a Bill to the Supreme Court to seek a judgment on whether it is constitutional. If the Supreme Court finds that the Bill, or any part of it, is unconstitutional, the President declines to sign the Bill and it is not enacted.
Members of the Dáil and Seanad may petition the President not to sign a Bill on the grounds that it contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should be sought. If a majority of the Seanad and at least one third of the Dáil petition the President not to sign a Bill, the President may agree to the request. The President then declines to sign the Bill until the proposal has been approved by the people in a referendum or by a new Dáil after a general election.
The Constitution sets out Ireland’s basic laws and describes how the country should be governed, the main institutions of the State and the rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens. All legislation must be compatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland.
If the Government wishes to change the Constitution, it must hold a referendum which allows the people to vote for or against the proposed change.
Before holding a referendum, the Government must introduce a proposal to amend the Constitution in the Dáil as a Bill. The Bill must be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad. Only then can the referendum take place.
If the majority of the votes cast at the referendum are in favour of the change, the Bill is enacted and the Constitution is amended. For example, the 2015 referendum on marriage equality resulted in the enactment of the Thirty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015.
The Acts passed by the Oireachtas are the primary legislation of Ireland. There is another category of laws known as secondary legislation or statutory instruments.
The Oireachtas does not enact statutory instruments. Instead, the power to enact them is delegated to certain people or bodies including Government Ministers, local authorities and regulatory bodies.
Secondary legislation must be consistent with, and based on, the legislation adopted by the Oireachtas. If it is not, it can be overturned by the courts.
Statutory instruments can take the form of ministerial orders, regulations, rules, bye-laws and schemes. Hundreds of them are issued each year.
Some Acts provide for a Minister to decide when to bring them into force. For example, the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 empowers the Minister for Social Protection to bring it into force. The Minister did so by enacting Statutory Instrument No. 435 of 2016, known as the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 (Commencement) Order 2016.
The European Communities Act 1972 empowers Ministers to make regulations to implement European treaties and directives. For example, the Minister for Health gave effect to Directive 2014/40/EU, known as the European Tobacco Products Directive 2014, by enacting Statutory Instrument No. 271 of 2016, known as the European Union (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco and Related Products) Regulations 2016.
An Act can delegate powers to a Government Minister to legislate in day-to-day matters arising from the Act. For example, the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 empowers the Minister for Agriculture and Food to make certain animal health and welfare regulations. The Minister used this power to enact regulations on the microchipping of dogs in Statutory Instrument No. 63 of 2015.
Local authorities are empowered to make bye-laws relating to anything within their remit by virtue of the Local Government Act 1994. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council used this power to enact the Parks Bye-Laws 2003.