How long does it take to pass and enact Bills?
Have you ever wondered how long it takes for a Bill to pass in Parliament and become an Act? Some complain that the process takes too long, while others argue that it is rushed. In this article, we provide some answers by sharing data, examining some causes/theories and highlighting a few interesting facts.
The passage of a bill through Parliament is prescribed. Prior to its arrival, it follows a lengthy process that includes the formulation, drafting, approval and certification of a draft Bill. The legislative journey in Parliament can either be smooth or encounter roadblocks – both procedural and substantive.
Our findings over the past decade show that on average it takes Parliament 153 days to pass a bill:
• Introduction to Adoption: 153 days
• Adoption to Assent by President: 96 days
• Assent to Commencement: 161 days
• Introduction to Commencement: 410 days
*Data from 2006 to 2015
Some bills are processed more quickly than others and survival is not always guaranteed but only 12.2% of introduced bills failed to be adopted by Parliament. With the ruling party's overwhelming majority, this figure is perhaps not surprising. Opposition parties are unable to block legislation and can only challenge the constitutionality of a bill in court once it has been signed into law.
The introduced bill is rarely the final product. It is subjected to public consultation, line by line scrutiny and consideration by both the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces, resulting in amendments. The time taken to go through all these stages depends on the length of the Bill, its importance, costing, complexity and how controversial it is. Other factors that will impact on the speed of the bill through Parliament is how much negotiating took place with stakeholders prior to the bill’s introduction, if there is broad support for the bill, the readiness of the affected department, and the parliamentary programme.
The Protection of State Information Bill, for example, is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in post-apartheid South Africa. The bill triggered unprecedented protest by civil society and the media. As a consequence, it underwent an exhaustive process in both the National Assembly and the NCOP. There were close to 100 committee meetings - public hearings and deliberations - on this bill, making it one of the most consulted bills since 1994. It took Parliament 1344 days to pass this Bill.
It is not always a negative outcome if a bill is fast tracked. In some cases, the expedient passage of a Bill may be a necessity. An urgent Bill or one introduced in response to a crisis may be passed in a matter of days. In 2012, the National Assembly and the NCOP amended the Sexual Offences Act in three days in response to a Western Cape High Court ruling which deemed some sections of the Act unconstitutional.
Not surprisingly, Money Bills (those that deal with budget appropriations, taxes, levies) are processed quicker (in 55 days) than section 74 (89 days), 75 (175 days) and 76 bills (168 days). They arrive at a set time each year and are usually prioritised ahead of any other parliamentary business. Prior to the last 12 months, no serious attempt has been made by MPs to use the Money Bills Amendment Procedure Act to amend budget bills. Over the years, there have been persistent complaints by MPs that the deadlines set out in the Money Bills Act are “far too onerous” and inhibits them from effectively processing the budget bills. An Ad Hoc Committee has now been established to look into the time frames and sequencing associated with Money Bills. In view of this, we can expect the number of days for processing these to increase.
Once a bill has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, the translation into one other official language of the final bill is updated by the State Law Adviser and translators at the Department of Justice and submitted to the Bills Office at Parliament. The translation is thoroughly checked against the English text. Any corrections are discussed with the translator at the Department of Justice. Once satisfied with the translated text, the Act proofs (English and translation on corresponding pages) is printed. These Act proofs are then checked again and then the Act form is printed. The Bills Office submits the Act form to the President's Office by courier, together with a letter stating the name, number and translation, signed by the Secretary to Parliament. This process can take from two weeks to three months, depending on how difficult the text is.
The President does not automatically sign a bill into law. He has the opportunity to assess the constitutionality of a bill and can refer it back to Parliament for reconsideration if he has any reservations (8 bills have been sent back since 2006). When exercising this right, the President seeks counsel and considers submissions and petitions made to him. In some cases, this includes listening to concerns from beyond the country such as foreign governments and international bodies.
Based on the data, it takes President Zuma an average 96 days to sign a bill. The President may also refer a Bill to the Constitutional Court for a decision on its constitutionality but this path is seldom taken. In recent times, two bills stand out: The Protection of State Information Bill and Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill have still not been signed into law after 32 months and 28 months respectively. A bill may come into force as soon as it is signed but usually it takes some time for it to come into operation. Most provisions in an Act will either come into operation within a set period after assent or at a time fixed by the government. This gives the government and those stakeholders who are directly affected by the Act time to plan accordingly. Sometimes an Act may require certain actions to be taken by the Department before it can be implemented, for instance subordinate legislation (regulations, determinations, rules) may have to be prepared, approved and gazetted.
Shortest time between introduction and commencement:
21 days: Special Adjustments Appropriation Bill 2007
27 days: Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act Amendment Bill 2012
30 days: Regulation of Interception of Communications-Related Information Amendment Bill 2010
Longest time between introduction and commencement:
2812 days: Immigration Amendment Bill 2006
2227 days: Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Amendment Bill 2007
2094 days: Firearms Control Amendment Bill 2006
What does this all mean and can we draw any conclusions? Notwithstanding concerns about Money Bills (which are being attended to) and a few examples in the run-up to elections, the data shows that it would be incorrect to assert that Parliament (and the President) rushes through legislation. Former Speaker Max Sisulu once stated that “the poor quality of legislation is often the consequence of inadequate scrutiny”. Ultimately, this process is driven and determined by politicians who should have a singular objective in mind: to produce good laws that can withstand scrutiny and (although not always possible) survive the test of time. It is noteworthy that Parliament has appointed a High Level Panel to assess the impact of key legislation. Going forward, parliamentary committees should make this post-legislative impact review a regular part of their business.