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Royal Assent

Royal Assent is the formal method by which a Monarch in many constitutional monarchies completes the process of the enactment of legislation, by formally assenting to an Act of Parliament. In most republics, this process is referred to as signing a Bill into law or promulagation. Royal Assent is one of the reserve powers of the Monarch.

Within countries that operate the Westminster system of parliamentary government and which continue to have the British monarch as their own sovereign, the Royal Assent in given to legislation by the Governor-General.

Historically, the power of the President of the United States to veto legislation or sign bills into law was derived from the royal assent.

Table of contents

The Three Options

Three formal options exist when a Bill is presented for the Royal Assent.

  1. Grant the Royal Assent ie, make the Bill law
  2. Withhold the Royal Assent ie, veto the Bill
  3. Reserve the Royal Assent ie, neither veto or confirm it, just leave it in limbo for an unspecified period

While in theory, any one of the three options can be used, in practice, no British monarch since 1707 [1] has withheld the Royal Assent. Until the late 1920s, all Commonwealth governors-general were advised on the exercise of the Royal Assent by the British government. Since then, the responsibility for advising a governor-general on the Royal Assent rests with the state's own government. As they almost invariably will have introduced the Bill being considered, they are highly unlikely to advise the effective vetoing of their own Bill. Reserving the Royal Assent is rare; some states have however done so if the Bill is of such signficance that the state wish to have it signed not by the Governor-General but by Queen Elizabeth II herself in person, she being due to visit the state very shortly.

The Use of the Powers

Granting the Royal Assent

The traditional method for granting the Royal Assent involved the monarch or Lords Commissioner[?] on his or her behalf, assembling in the House of Lords, Black Rod, a formal parliamentary official, was then dispatched to the House of Commons to summon its members to the House of Lords. MPs would travel to the Lords chamber, where they would stand at the back, while the name of whatever Bills had completed parliamentary passage were read out. Where the Assent was given, the Commissioners would state La Reyne le veult (the Queen approves, in old Norman French). MPs would then adjourn back to the Commons to continue with their business. This ceremony, adapted somewhat, was copied in many commonwealth parliamentary democracies. In Canada, the Governor-General or her representative would formally attend in the Senate chamber, to which MPs would be summoned, to witness the granting of the Royal Assent.

In most states, this ceremony has been discontinued. MPs complained that it disrupted their deliberations too much. In 1967 the ceremony was abolished in the United Kingdom. Instead the granting of the Royal Assent is now confirmed in both Houses separately, by the Lords Commissioner in the House of Lords and the Speaker in the House of Commons (see External links below). Canada remained the last Commonwealth state to continue the ritual of summoning both houses to witness the granting of the Royal Assent.

Withholding of the Royal Assent

  • In the United Kingdom - Queen Anne was the last monarch to withhold a Royal Assent, when she blocked a Scottish militia Bill in 1707.[1]

  • In Canada, Royal Assent was withheld in 1937 on several bills and the crown dissolved the legislature.

  • In 1936 Alberta's Lieutenant Governor Bowen withheld the Royal Assent from three Bills passed during William Aberhart's Social Credit government. Two of them were thought likely to interfere in federal-government controlled financial areas, while the third, the Accurate News and Information Act, would have placed restrictions on how media reported the news and was thus considered by some lawyers to be unconstitutional.

Reserving the Royal Assent

The concept of reserving the Royal Assent was created to allow a monarch to avoid making an immediate decision on whether to Assent to or withhold a Bill. In Empire and Commonwealth history, it allowed the British Government in London to examine a Bill passed in a dominion to see whether it thought it worth instructing the Governor-General to veto. Today, Bills are normally only reserved on rare occasions, such as if a government wishes to have the Queen herself rather than the Governor-General sign a Bill and a royal visit is pending within a couple of weeks.

Notes

[1] While history and legal textbooks generally refer to the last 'withholding' of the Royal Assent (ie, vetoing) as occuring in 1707, when Queen Anne vetoed a Scottish militia bill, the British parliamentary website dates the veto as occuring in 1708.

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