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What is Royal Assent - and why don't laws come into force straight away?

Updated Friday, 25 August 2017
The Monarch's sign-off on a Bill is the last stage in making laws in the United Kingdom. But there's sometimes a delay before the new law comes into force.

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Queen Elizabeth II

What is Royal Assent?

Royal Assent is when the monarch formally assents to a Bill (a piece of prospective legislation that has already been approved by Parliament) in order for it to pass into law. Once Royal Assent has been given the Bill is an Act of Parliament.

Can the Queen refuse to provide Royal Assent?

Royal Assent has never been withheld in recent times. Queen Anne was the last monarch to withhold a Royal Assent, when she blocked a Scottish Militia Bill in 1707. The Queen feared a Scottish militia might be turned against the monarchy.

Does the Queen actually sign a Bill?

Since the sixteenth century no monarch has actually signed a Bill themselves. Instead, the monarch signs what are known as Letters Patent which announce that an assent has been given. Alternatively, the monarch signs a document known as a Commission which commands certain Lords, known as Royal Commissioners, to let both Houses of Parliament know that Royal Assent has been given.

Do laws come into effect as soon as the Queen gives Assent?

Following the Royal Assent, the Act of Parliament will usually come into force at midnight of that date. However, there has been a growing trend for Acts of Parliament not to come into force immediately. Instead the Act itself either states the date when it will commence, or the Act passes responsibility to the appropriate minister to fix the date when the Act will come into force. In the latter case the minister will bring the Act into force by issuing a commencement order.

Why would the commencement of an Act of Parliament be delayed?

The best way to answer this question iswith a good example. In 1989 the Children Act received Royal Assent. The Children Act aimed to offer greater protection to children. The main principles of the Act are to make children's welfare a priority; to guarantee the principle that children are best brought up within their families wherever possible; to ensure that local authorities can provide services for children and families in need; to promote partnership between children, parents and local authorities; to improve the way courts deal with children and families; and to protect the rights of children. However, this Act did not come into force until 1991.

If you read again the principles of the Children Act stated above you will see that it requires local authorities to provide services to children. Local authorities needed time to improve services for children. Social workers needed time so that they could receive training in how they should implement the new principles of making children's welfare a priority, recognising that children are best brought up within their families wherever possible, and promoting partnership between children, parents and the local authorities. Between 1989 and 1991 local authorities and social workers had the opportunity to adjust their practices so that when the Children Act 1989 became law in 1991 they would be able to put the Act into practice.


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