What's up with "Private Acts" in British law?

With my postgraduate law program going to begin soon, I started delving into common law - especially the UK - and got across the issue of “private acts.” These are apparently Acts of Parliament which do not affect the general public, but only deal with one single person, like a company or even an individual. Researching this to more detail, I found this site listing private acts since 1539, and it mentions some very odd things - as a rather recent example, we get the George Donald Evans and Deborah Jane Evans (Marriage Enabling) Act of 1987, and a series of similar Marriage Enabling Acts. Unfortunaly, I wasn’t able to find the text of this statute, neither on the publicly available web nor in databases like Westlaw or LexisNexis.

Is this really what it sounds like - Parliament makes an act to enable Mr and Mrs Evans to marry, which otherwise would for some reason not have been possible? Why the heck does Parliament bother with this, and how do you get such an act passed if you need it for some reason - do you approach your local MP and ask him or her to rally support for your case among colleagues?

Yes, that’s what they are. The Evans act in particular was passed in order to allow a father-in-law and daughter-in-law to marry. See here, if you haven’t already seen it.

Parliament bothers because it has to; Britain has a unitary government, not a federal one, and while most local affairs are handled by local government, any legislation has to come from Parliament.

In the US, we have state legislatures that handle this sort of minutiae.

If you watch Parliament on C-Span you’ll often hear MPs talking about such trivialities as the condition of the toilets in their local train stations.

Here’s another example: in Bermuda (British law based) there is a type of corporate entity called a segregated accounts company. (It is useful because it allows you to set up “divisions” (segregated accounts) of the company which can operate as separate businesses with bankruptcy-proof barriers between the assets of the divisions while not having cumbersome multiple boards of directors, etc.) For a while, SACs were veiwed as experimental and you had to get a Private Act to form each one. This was not a problem provided you hired an island-based adviser since Bermuda is business-friendly and its legislature may have less on its agenda than England.

Anyway, we did a few of these (for insurance companies) until about 5 years ago when they made SACs part of ordinary Bermuda corporate law, eliminating the need for Private Acts.

The US Congress does pass the rare Private Law when federal issues are involved. (All other federal statutes are designated Public Laws.)

For example, here is one granting permanent resident status to one Lindita Idrizi Heath, probably passed to relieve some bureaucratic snafu.

She was a Kosovar refugee adopted by an American couple; she turned 16 just before her adoption became final, and was thus not eligible for automatic permanent residency.

Well, yes, it does help to have sympathetic MP willing to beat the drum in your support. But it is not individual MPs who introduce these bills. There is a process by which the person who wants the Act petitions for the bill to be introduced. The idea is that you should be able get a hearing - albeit after jumping through innumerable preliminary hoops - without depending on the whim of an individual MP.

House of Commons fact sheet (PDF)

To be fair though, it is possible to meet your MP to discuss concerns with them face-to-face. Even the Prime Minister holds constituency surgeries, probably not all that frequently though.

My local MP is/was a minister, and he still held two surgeries each month and all you needed to do was go down to the local constituency office to see him.

In addition to stuff like Private Acts, a good MP will be a repository of local advice and assistance in a great deal of matters.

You could have a shit MP though (I hear George Galloway was an awful local MP, for instance).

Private Bills are, these days, usually promoted by companies or local authorities to enable them to do something - typically build a bridge or a road, or dredge a bigger harbour. Private Bills take up a good deal of parliamentary time and are little noticed by anyone, except maybe those directly affected.
In the past, divorce was not possible unless you could get a Private Bill passed specifically to legalise you and your wife’s divorce. Only wealthy and connected people could do so.
This should not be confused with Private Members’ Bills, which typically attempt to amend the criminal (or occasionally civil) law, and which seldom pass unless the government has no objection or gives them a fair wind (and often, not even then).

Well, I can see that it is the unitary government handling these things instead of a local authority, but I’m surprised to see it is done by means of legislation instead of acts of the executive. In Germany, actually, there is a constitutional ban on acts designed to apply only to a particular case.

Your station toilet example is different; toilets in train stations might be a minor issue, but it’s still an issue of general extent and not a single case since such a piece of legislation will affect all the toilets in all of British train stations.

But thanks to everybody for your answers!

In the UK there’s no constitution (at least, none corresponding with single written constitutions in countries like Germany and the US), and there are no limits on the power of the Parliament to legislate – though in practice some treaty obligations might impose limits, such as EU human rights law, and in practice some kinds of legislation such as bills of attainder have probably become impossible by political convention, rather than by law.

Britain doesn’t have a unified constitution, so there’s no such thing as a constitutional ban, really. Plus, there’s no separation between the executive and legislature in a Parliamentary system; the PM is simply the leader of the legislative majority.
An act of the executive is effectively legislation, unless it causes a backbench revolt.

The executive in the Westminster system only has delegated legislative authority, so for the executive to have the power to do something like this, there would have to a statute passed to authorise the executive to do so. However, it’s not likely that you would see that kind of power delegated, precisely because it is legislation that applies only to a particular case. The theory is that if you want that kind of special legislation, it should be done by the legislature, in the full light of day and normal parliamentary process, rather than by the executive through an order-in-council. That’s particularly so if it’s a special corporation structure or exemption - you want it to get the maximum public and parliamentary scrutiny.

In Canada, prior to 1968, the law governing divorce was a real patchwork. There was no law allowing a divorce in Quebec (or Newfoundland, I think), so someone seeking a divorce had to get a divorce act from the federal Parliament. The main work on these bills was done by a committee of the Senate, which acted as a divorce court.

Prior to the 20th century many states lacked provisions for courts to dissolve a marriage. One needed to petition the state legislature to both dissolve one’s marriage and grant one the right to remarry. Andrew Jackson’s wife first marriage was dissolved in this manner, but not quite. Her first husband petitioned the legislature for divorce, but was rejected. He told her it was granted. She then married Andrew Jackson and a few years later her first husband sucessfully petitioned the legislature for divorce on the grounds that his wife not only commited adultery, but was cohabitating with another man.