Laws govern almost every aspect of our lives.
They are the written rules that define and protect our rights and determine the social, economic and cultural policies that help to shape our society.
This guide outlines how the law-making system works – how laws come about and how they can be influenced.
Laws and law-makers
In any one year, between 30 and 50 new laws are enacted in Ireland.
This means that they go before the Houses of the Oireachtas – the Dáil and the Seanad – as Bills (draft laws) before becoming Acts of the Oireachtas.
All laws must be in accordance with the Irish Constitution, which is the country’s basic law.
Generally new laws must be introduced before any significant changes to policies can come into effect. (However, some policies are not governed by a specific law, such as for example, the policies pursued by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.)
Because laws often deal with complex issues, they generally take a long time to prepare and enact. It can therefore take many years for government commitments to make their way onto the statute book as new laws.
It is useful to view laws as practically permanent in nature. This is because so much ground work goes in to producing new laws that governments are generally reluctant to propose changes to them until they have been in place for a while and have been shown to be seriously inadequate.
However, in crisis situations, laws may be repealed or adjusted (amended) soon after they are passed.
Laws may also be repealed to reflect changes in social values. For example, the Children Act 1908, which allowed parents to use force against their children, was repealed by the Children Act 2001.
Laws in our daily lives
We all encounter laws every day. For example, when we drive cars, we are subject to laws that regulate our speed. When we go to the pub for a drink, we have to observe licensing laws. When our children attend schools, their daily timetable is governed by laws.
Why laws must be made
Our laws are constantly being revised and updated. Here are some of the reasons for this:
- New laws, or revisions to existing laws, are often needed to implement policy commitments in the Programme for Government, which is a government’s work plan for its time in office.
- New laws are often required to meet the recommendations of expert reports, Oireachtas Committees, or judge-led Commissions of Inquiry or Tribunals of Inquiry.
- In some cases, laws are introduced as a result of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, an international court that rules on individual or State applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Certain laws have to be introduced in any given year to meet the requirements of the Constitution. For example, any changes announced in the annual Budget must be introduced through new laws – the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill.
- If the Supreme Court rules that any part of a law is unconstitutional, a new law must be introduced.
- Some laws are introduced to deal with crisis situations. This was the case for various acts agreed by the Oireachtas as part of the government’s response to a banking and financial crisis that started in 2008.
- Laws are generally needed to ensure that Ireland complies with its legal obligations under international law.
- A European Union law (Directive) requires an Irish law to be approved by the Oireachtas. This is to bring Irish law into line with agreements made by Ireland at European level that all Directives are based on. For example, the Data Protection Directive was implemented in Ireland as the Data Protection Act 2003.
However a European Regulation, agreed in the same way at the European level as a Directive, does not require national parliament implementation in the form of a domestic law. It applies directly and in the same way in all EU Member States.
For more information on how the EU makes laws, see the Toolkit Guide to the EU.
Virtually all new laws come from the government of the day. Occasionally, opposition TD or Senators may introduce draft laws of their own. These are called Private Members’ Bills.
Governments rarely accept such proposed legislation. But they do from time to time and it is worth keeping them in mind as a way of influencing changes in the law. (There is more information about Private Members' Bills below)
Government’s Legislative Programme
Ahead of each parliamentary term or session, the government publishes its detailed Legislative Programme setting out a broad timetable for when Bills will be published.
The Legislative Programme lists:
- Bills expected to be published during that session.
- Bills that are being drafted based on agreed Heads of Bills (or General Schemes).
- Planned Bills, where the Heads of Bills have yet to be approved by Government.
- Bills before the Dáil and Seanad.
The government's Legislative Programme is updated at the start of each parliamentary term, in spring, autumn, and winter. It is published on the website of the Department of the Taoiseach.
Bills become Acts
A Bill is the text of proposed legislation presented to the Oireachtas for consideration and approval. An Act is legislation approved by the Oireachtas.
The role of the Oireachtas in law-making
Under the Irish Constitution, which is the country’s basic law, only the Oireachtas has the power to make laws for the State.
The Oireachtas is made up of:
- the Dáil, or lower house of parliament, made up of 166 deputies or TDs who are elected at general elections approximately every five years. (The number of seats will be reduced to 158 following the next general election scheduled for 2016).
- the Seanad, or upper house of parliament, made up of 60 Senators. Of these, 46 are elected by County and City Councillors; 3 are elected by the graduates of three universities; and 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach. No Senators are directly elected by citizens.
- the President, who is directly elected by the people every seven years.
Each of these institutions has an important role to play as a draft law (Bill) makes the journey into becoming an Act of the Oireachtas.
The How it Works section of this guide explains this in more detail. Briefly, the process is as follows:
- Firstly, each House of the Oireachtas separately debates and approve Bills. Detailed consideration of Bills take place in Oireachtas Committees. These are sub-groups of legislators drawn from both government and opposition members of the Dáil and Seanad. The Committees ‘shadow’ the work of government departments, including scrutinising proposed legislation.
- After Bills are approved by the Dáil and Seanad, they must be signed by the President. If in doubt, the President has a power under the Constitution to refer Bills to the Supreme Court to check whether they are compatible with the Constitution. The President may do so only if she or he has grounds for believing that a Bill may contravene the Constitution.
If an Act of the Oireachtas is referred in this way to the Supreme Court and it is found to be ‘constitutional’, it can never again be challenged by any citizen as unconstitutional.
Therefore, the President’s power is used very sparingly.
The Oireachtas' role in law making is subject to Ireland's obligations as a member of the European Union (EU).
EU law takes precedence over national laws, where it applies. For more on how Ireland's EU memberships affects our rights and laws, see the Toolkit Guide to the EU.
Because of their formal role in the law-making process, TDs and Senators are often referred to as law-makers or legislators.
Primary and secondary legislation
Laws, or Acts of the Oireachtas, are called primary legislation. There is another category of laws known as secondary legislation or statutory instruments.
There are five main types of secondary legislation.
These are: Ministerial orders, regulations, rules, bye-laws and schemes.
Several hundred pieces of secondary legislation are issued each year. These are typically used to flesh out technical, local or day-to-day matters that arise from the operation of primary legislation.
Statutory instruments are not enacted by the Oireachtas in the same way as Acts, or primary legislation. Instead, the Oireachtas delegates powers in the primary legislation that it passes to allow for secondary legislation.
These powers are usually delegated to a government Minister, a public body or agency, a local authority (a City or County Council), or a regulatory body such as the Revenue Commissioners.
For example, a law on farming could delegate powers to the Minister for Agriculture to make regulations dealing with particular details regarding the spreading of slurry. City and County Councils also pass secondary legislation in the form of bye-laws to regulate local issues to do with parking, parks, beaches and environment.
Unlike Acts, secondary legislation generally goes through the Oireachtas without any debate or discussion. This means that secondary legislation can be passed quickly.
The main drawback of the secondary legislation process is that a large volume of often complex regulation can be introduced without scrutiny by our elected representatives. Also, unlike with Acts, there is generally very little publicity surrounding the implementation of such regulations. This means that the public can remain largely unaware of potentially significant detail in our laws.
However secondary legislation must be consistent with, and based on, the legislation adopted by the Oireachtas. It can be overturned by the courts if found to be in breach of primary legislation.
Private Members’ Bills
Most Bills are government Bills, which means they are introduced and sponsored by a government Minister.
But individual TDs or Senators too can bring forward new draft legislation, or a proposal to amend existing legislation. These are called Private Members’ Bills (PMBs).
Time is set aside in the Oireachtas schedule each week for these kinds of Bills to be introduced and debated.
PMBs rarely become law. This could be because the Bill’s proposer is unable to get the required support among other law-makers to have it debated and voted upon.
Frequently, the government of the day opposes PMBs and uses its parliamentary majority to vote them down. A government might oppose a PMB for various reasons. This could include because:
- it doesn’t agree with the proposal as it contrary to its own Programme for Government.
- it considers the proposal to be to broad, too narrow, or inadequate in its scope.
- it cuts across work already underway by a government Minister on the same issue.
On occasions, and especially if there is strong public support for the proposal, the Government may be persuaded to accept a PMB as a government Bill.
Since 1989, a total of 12 Bills that started life as PMBs have been passed by the Oireachtas as government-sponsored Bills. These included a law to prohibit smoking in cars with children present, and a law to protect people reporting child abuse.
Bills use technical legal language
Bills are written by specialist barristers (parliamentary counsel) based in the Attorney General’s Office.
Because they must be drafted in legally precise language, they can often be difficult for non-experts to understand. There is also normally an Explanatory Memorandum published alongside the Bill. This sets out in non-technical terms what is proposed by the Bill. It can be useful to read both in tandem.
While Explanatory Memorandums are useful guides, it is important to remember that they may highlight the positive elements of a Bill while glossing over possibly contentious sections.
It can take time to get used to the dense language and complex narrative structure of Bills. But if you are interested in legal change, it is worth practicing reading laws.
The work of Oireachtas Committees
Oireachtas committees are sub-groups of legislators drawn from both government and opposition members of the Dáil and Seanad.
The idea behind the committee system is to allow tasks to be delegated to small groups of legislators who can operate more flexibly and effectively than the Houses themselves. One of the main roles of committees is to ‘shadow’ the work of government departments. This includes scrutinising draft laws and holding public hearings on issues that are relevant to the department whose work they are shadowing.
Most committees are made up of both senators and deputies – these are called Joint Committees.
Some committees only have TDs sitting on them – these are called Select Committees.
The government of the day keeps a tight grip on the committees, with the majority of members on each committee drawn from the government side.
The majority of committee chairs and vice chairs are members of the ruling political parties. Each committee has its own clerk who is a member of the support staff of Leinster House.
Through their committee work, TDs and Senators have an opportunity to develop interest and knowledge in particular policy areas.
However, there is no time in the Oireachtas schedule dedicated to TDs’ and Senators’ committee work. This means that TDs and Senators regularly have to leave Committee meetings and hearings to participate in Oireachtas debates, or to speak or vote in the Dáil or Seanad.
Public representatives also have to juggle their committee work and their presence in the Dáil or Seanad chambers with their constituency duties, such as meeting groups of constituents. They also need to research and prepare their position on any given issue.
The time spent and priority given by each TD and Senator to any one of those areas of work depends on their political priorities. For Ministers the work load is massively greater again and therefore their presence at committees can be very limited.
Committees may change after each election – see a full list of current committees on the Oireachtas website
For more information on how committees work, see the fact sheets produced by the House of the Oireachtas
The website for community and voluntary groups, Oireachtas Brief, also has more detail on how Oireachtas Committees work
How laws are made and influenced
Bills (draft laws) are almost always proposed and introduced to the Oireachtas by the government of the day.
They are sponsored by a Minister who must first receive government approval for his or her proposals. The Minister has the job to steer a Bill through the Dáil and Seanad.
This provides TDs and Senators with an opportunity to hold government to account by scrutinising its legislative proposals.
Parliamentary scrutiny is crucial to ensuring that there is a public debate about all government proposals to change our laws. It also helps to ensure that the best law possible in the circumstances is finally approved.
While TDs and Senators can propose amendments to government Bills as they are going through the Houses of the Oireachtas, for the most part these are minor or technical changes.
This highlights the need for those seeking legal change to make their case well in advance of any Bill actually reaching the floor of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The law-making process is often viewed as the formal stages of a Bill going through the Oireachtas and becoming an Act.
However, much crucial preparatory work takes place before a Bill is even published.
This consists of:
- Research and consultations to prepare draft Bills
- Early parliamentary scrutiny of draft Bills
Research and consultations to prepare draft Bills
Once a government makes a commitment in principle to introduce a new law, the next step is for civil servants to begin preparing a draft text. Officials in the government department of the Minister who is sponsoring the law are in charge of this.
These civil servants will generally start by carrying out detailed research. Depending on the type of law they are working on, they may seek input from experts and academics, charities, civil society organisations, trade unions, business groups, professional bodies and the general public.
In some cases, but definitely not in all cases, an official discussion document or policy paper will be produced by government department officials (sometimes called a Green Paper).
This may be used as a basis to invite written submissions or hold formal consultations with groups and individuals.
This is an important stage, because it is when the scope and ambition of a proposed law begins to take shape.
The initial draft of a Bill is known as a General Scheme or Heads of a Bill. The Minister responsible for it has to have it approved by government before it is published.
This generally happens at the weekly meeting of the government or Cabinet, held usually on a Tuesday.
For more information on consultations on draft laws, see the Toolkit Guide to Policy-Making
Early parliamentary scrutiny of draft Bills
Traditionally, General Schemes/Heads of Bills were not published. However, government departments now publish legislation in draft format.
The General Scheme sets out the main objectives of the proposed law and the key provisions planned for each section or heading.
Sponsoring Ministers are generally required to send General Schemes of Bills to the relevant Joint Oireachtas Committee for early consideration. This process is called 'pre-legislative scrutiny'.
Joint Oireachtas Committees are sub-groups of legislators made up of both government and opposition members of the Dáil and Seanad (TDs and Senators).
Pre-legislative scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee
A Joint Oireachtas Committee can decide whether or not to invite written submissions on the General Scheme of a Bill referred to it.
It can also decide to hold public hearings and invite interested parties and experts to attend.
If a Committee does not invite written submissions or hold hearings on a General Scheme of a Bill, interested parties can in any case make their views known at this stage to the Committee concerned.
After a Committee considers a General Scheme of a Bill, it generally issues a report. This may contain summaries of its hearings, observations or recommendations to the Minister who is sponsoring the draft legislation.
It is up to the sponsoring Minister to accept or reject any proposals put forward by a Committee at this stage.
The benefits of pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills
The 'pre-legislative scrutiny' process is relatively new and is still evolving – it was introduced in 2011 on a phased basis and only started becoming the norm in 2013.
The idea behind it is that it offers an opportunity for different interested parties to highlight deficiencies or potential problems at an early stage in the law-making process – before or while a Bill is being drafted.
It is still too early to judge how effective the pre-legislative scrutiny process has been.
There are some documented cases where Oireachtas Committees have not been given enough time to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny and provide their feedback to the sponsoring Minister.
But there have also been cases where Ministers have accepted recommendations made by Committees following pre-legislative scrutiny.
One notable example of a comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny process was the handling of the General Scheme of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children reviewed the Scheme, held public hearings in May 2013, and reported on its deliberations to the Minister for Health.
Read more about the pre-legislative scrutiny process
General Scheme or Heads of a Bill
The General Scheme or Heads of a Bill set out the main objectives of a proposed law and the key provisions of each section or heading. Just because an issue is not addressed in the General Scheme of a Bill, it does not mean that it will not be addressed in the Bill itself.
However, this can also work the other way – something that appeared to be covered in a General Scheme may not end up in the revised Bill.
Also, as a Bill makes its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas some sections may be dropped, some added and some amended.
Bills before the Dáil and Seanad
After analysing feedback from consultations and/or a report from a Joint Oireachtas Committee, a detailed Bill is approved by government, again at a Cabinet meeting.
Following this approval, a Bill proper is published and begins to make its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Once a Bill goes before the Houses of the Oireachtas, there are five formal stages that is must go through. (See the How a Law is Made graphic below).
Committee Stage – when an Oireachtas Committee goes through the Bill on a clause-by-clause basis – is the most important.
It offers the fullest opportunities for TDs and Senators to discuss the draft law and try to persuade the sponsoring Minister to accept their amendments.
However, a Committee’s scope for amending legislation is usually quite limited, due to how government majorities operate.
How a Bill becomes law
The five stages in a Bill going before the Houses of the Oireachtas are:
A Bill is introduced, usually in the Dáil, by the sponsoring Minister. The Minister outlines the Bill and what it is trying to achieve.
There is a general debate on the principles of the Bill. Oireachtas members from both the government and opposition can discuss what could be included in the Bill and what should be removed.
Opposition spokespeople are the most likely TDs to take a detailed interest in Bills at this stage. Once the general idea of a Bill is accepted, the Dáil usually sends it to be considered in more detail by the relevant Select Committee. A Select Committee is a sub-group of legislators made up of TDs from both government and opposition members.
During Committee stage, Bills are considered on a line by line basis in a committee room separate to the Dáil chamber, with the sponsoring Minister present.
Detailed amendments are generally tabled by opposition TDs, usually those who are party spokespeople for the issue under scrutiny. TDs go through their suggested amendments one by one to try to persuade the Minister to accept them.
The Minister responds to each amendment, explaining the reasons for accepting or rejecting it. For example, the Minister may argue that the point is already adequately covered by another section of the Bill. The Minister may accept an amendment in full or in part.
The Committee must come to a collective decision on any amendment. While an individual opposition TD can press an amendment to an open vote at Committee stage (and also at the next, Report, stage), the government majority means it will usually be defeated.
Sometimes, a Minister will formally reject an opposition TD's amendment, but agree to examine it and table a government amendment at Report stage.
The sponsoring Minister can also introduce Committee stage amendments on behalf of the government. These are usually technical or minor.
Opposition TDs sometimes use Committee stage hearings to secure verbal commitments from a Minister on how a Bill will operate in practice.
Any statement that a Minister makes during a Dáil debate – including Committee stage of a Bill – becomes part of the official written parliamentary record. It can often be useful to be able to subsequently cite the record to put pressure on Ministers to deliver on commitments made at Committee stage hearings.
Committee stage consideration of a Bill can last several days, and the sittings can be spread over weeks. This depends on the size of the Bill, the number of amendments that are tabled and the complexity or urgency of the issue.
This is generally a short hearing back in the full Dáil chamber. It is a review of any changes made at Committee stage. Amendments that flow from issues raised at Committee stage can be proposed and discussed.
The Bill is finally considered again by the whole Dáil. No more changes can be made. The final action is for the House to be asked the question: ‘that the Bill do now pass’ . A Bill can be passed verbally, with no record of who supported or opposed it – those in favour say Tá (Yes), and those against say Nil (No).
If the result of this voice vote is challenged, then a formal vote must be taken using an electronic voting system, which records how each TD votes.
Scrutiny stages repeated in the Seanad
After a Bill passes the five stages in the Dáil, it must then go through the same process once again in the Seanad, starting with from the second, debate, stage.
Bills generally go through the Seanad fairly quickly. Committee stage is normally taken on the floor of the House rather than in a separate committee meeting. Sometimes Report stage and Final stage are also taken at the same time in the Seanad.
The Seanad cannot generally stop the Dáil from introducing legislation. It can obstruct a Bill by adopting amendments which the Minister has not agreed to, but the Dáil can overturn these amendments.
Once a Bill is passed by both Houses, it is presented to the President to sign and declare it as law. The President can refer a Bill to the Supreme Court to check whether it is compatible with the Constitution, which is the basic law of the country.
If the Supreme Court decides that a Bill is constitutional, the president can sign it. If the court rules that a Bill is not constitutional, it will be struck down.
If a Bill as passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas is considered by opposition deputies to be seriously inadequate, they can (along with Senators) appeal to the President to refuse to sign it into law. Also, any member of the public can seek a judicial review of legislation in the courts.
Preparing Bills take time, energy and public money
By the time a Bill gets to the Oireachtas, a lot of time, energy and public money will have been spent in preparing it.
Officials will have worked and reworked the text and may have consulted with other government departments as well as other stakeholders, including TDs and Senators involved in pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Bill will also have been reviewed by legal experts from the Attorney General’s office to ensure it is constitutional and meets the State’s human rights and other international obligations.
The graphic below shows the main stages of how a law is made and influenced.
Laws can be brought into force in phases
Acts may come into force immediately after they are passed, or on a day or days that a Minister appoints by signing a 'commencement order,' which is a type of statutory instrument.
Sometimes, particular sections of an Act come into force straight away, while other sections do not. The phased 'commencement' of different parts of an Act can happen for a variety of reasons.
This includes when it is necessary to first put in place service infrastructure, such as the setting up of a new agency or body to implement the law.
Because some Acts are commenced in stages, it means that it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly which sections of a law are in force at any particular time.
To find out which sections of an Act have been commenced you can search the official database www.Irishstatutebook.ie .
The Legislation Directory section contains commencement information about all Acts listed. It also contains listings of any secondary legislation, like regulations or orders, made under the parent Act.
Example of a law brought into force in phases
The Charities Act 2009 was introduced to set up a new system of registration and regulation for charities to ensure greater accountability to donors and the public.
Some parts of the Act came into operation straight away, in 2009. However, one of the most important sections of the Act – to set up a Charities Regulatory Authority – was 'commenced' five years later, in October 2014. The Authority was established in October 2014.
Bills lapse when a general election is called
If a Bill is making its way through the Dáil or the Seanad when the Houses are dissolved for the holding of a general election, it will lapse. Following an election, a new Dáil can restore lapsed Bills to the Dáil or Seanad schedules, on the proposal of the new government.
This happens infrequently, as new governments are generally reluctant to inherit draft legislation in this way, unless they are the same political party/parties as the outgoing government with a similar Programme for Government.
Instead, incoming Ministers prefer to make their own mark by introducing a fresh Bill on the same issue, taking account of the debates already held on the matter.
However, if a Bill is non-contentious or straightforward, it may be restored to its place in the five stage process in either the Dáil or the Seanad.
Some Bills that lapsed and were restored after the general election in 2011 were to do with issues like road traffic, biological weapons, female genital mutilation and child care.
How government majorities affect law-making
Most laws are uncontroversial. Occasionally however proposals to change the law can be deeply divisive in the Oireachtas and among the public.
This was the case for example with regard to implementing changes to the law on abortion in 2013. It was also the case in relation to the introduction of water charges through legislation in 2015.
Governments are generally unwilling to accept significant amendments to these sorts of major policy proposals. This is because in the Irish parliamentary system, for the government of the day to remain in office, it requires majority support for its key proposals.
This tends to harden a government’s stance if it feels any change proposed by the opposition will fundamentally undermine its policy approach. This in turn weakens the capacity of opposition members to force fundamental changes to government policy.
Working for legal change
You don’t need to be a legal expert to spearhead a change in the law. But you do need to know how the law-making system works and how to navigate it – or at least find out how that can be done.
If you, as an individual or as part of a group, want to see a change in the law, you have to be prepared to do a lot of ground work, and on many different fronts.
This section of the guide sets out some of the ways in which you can work with public representatives and officials to influence the content of draft laws, or help to build the case for new ones.
The Toolkit Guide to Policy-Making also contains useful information and tips on how to push for new policies that may require new laws to be introduced.
Ministers are generally open to considering the views of groups and citizens with regard to the Bills that they are sponsoring.
If you want to have input into a law as it takes shape, you need to start early and share your views and evidence with Ministers and their advisers, civil servants, TDs, Senators and any other relevant public officials.
The government regularly provides updates on the status of laws that it has already committed to introducing. It is worth checking the Government Legislation Programme to see how much progress is being made on Bills that are already in the pipeline.
You can also of course also inquire directly with the relevant government department, either by contacting civil servants or the department’s information office.
Consultations with civil servants
When new or revised laws are being prepared, civil servants in government departments generally undertake consultations with interested groups and organisations, as well as members of the public. This can be formal or informal.
Formal consultations include public hearings, workshops or open invitations for written submissions on a policy paper or proposal that requires legal change.
Government departments generally post notices about public consultations on their websites.
There is no single website where you can find out about live consultations on all proposed laws.
The best way to stay informed is to regularly check the relevant authority’s website for updates. If you already know which civil servants or officials are responsible for particular areas, you can also keep in touch with them directly.
Local authorities – City and County Councils – also regularly run public consultations, inviting written submissions on draft bye-laws, which are a form of secondary legislation. For more on this, see the Toolkit Guide to Local Government.
Informal consultations include one-to-one meetings with civil servants, Ministers, their advisers and any other relevant public officials. If you are unable to make direct contact with a Minister yourself, you could ask TDs or Senators to present your views. You can also write directly to a Minister and department officials, including civil servants working on a draft law.
Working with TDs and Senators to influence laws
Elected representatives (TDs and Senators, the legislators) in the Dáil and Seanad can help interested groups and individuals to influence legal changes.
As we have seen in the How it Works section of this guide, TDs and Senators have an important part to play in shaping the contents of a draft law as it makes its way through the parliamentary process.
They can do this by:
- taking part in early scrutiny of a draft Bill (General Scheme or Heads of a Bill)
- taking part in Oireachtas debates on a Bill with a sponsoring Minister
- tabling amendments to a Bill
An individual TD or Senator can also put forward their own legislation, known as a Private Member's Bill.
Early scrutiny of draft Bills
Once a draft Bill – called a General Scheme or Heads of a Bill – is published by a government department, it will generally be sent to a Joint Oireachtas Committee for early consideration.
As part of this ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’ process, a Committee may put out a public call for submissions from interested groups or individuals by a specified date. This is usually done through the relevant Committee’s web page on the official Oireachtas website.
Committees can also invite individuals or organisations to appear before them at a public hearing on the General Scheme of a Bill.
If a Committee does not invite written submissions or hold hearings on a General Scheme of a Bill, you can in any case make your views known at this stage to members of the Committee concerned.
Government department officials may be open to further consultations with interested parties in the period between the publication of a General Scheme of a Bill and the publication of the detailed Bill itself.
However, this may not always be the case, particularly if government policy is already firmly fixed with regard to the fundamentals and details of the draft law, and these are accurately reflected in the General Scheme.
Oireachtas debates on a Bill
The next time TDs and Senators consider a proposed law is much later on, when a revised Bill is making its way through the formal five-stage process in the Dáil and Seanad.
At the second (debate) stage in the passage of a Bill through the Dáil or Seanad, TDs and Senators have an opportunity to raise issues of concern with the sponsoring Minister on the floor of either House.
Tabling amendments to a Bill
A much more detailed clause-by-clause study of a Bill takes place at the third (committee) stage in the formal five-stage process of a Bill going through the Oireachtas. At Committee stage, proposed amendments can be tabled by TDs and Senators, as well as the Minister who is sponsoring the Bill on behalf of the government.
Amendments which succeed at this stage (and the following Report stage) are, for the most part, minor or technical changes. Opposition party members in particular need to be very persuasive (and to mobilise public opinion) in order to succeed in having significant changes made at this late stage.
If you think you have a chance of securing fresh amendments to a Bill while it is going through the Houses of the Oireachtas, the best approach is to raise issues with TDs and Senators in good time to allow them to formally table amendments.
Members of Government parties should not be ignored. They have an important direct influence on the shaping of legislation both within their parliamentary party and directly with Ministers.
Private Members’ Bills
Individual opposition TDs and Senators can bring forward new draft legislation, or a proposal to amend an existing law, in the form of a Private Member’s Bill (PMB).
Time is set aside in the Oireachtas schedule each week for TDs or Senators to introduce and debate PMBs.
Only a few PMBs succeed in becoming actual Acts of the Oireachtas. On occasions, if there is strong public support for a PMB proposal, the Government may be persuaded to adopt it as a government Bill.
However, even when a PMB is not successful, the very fact that it has been introduced and debated in parliament can help draw political attention to an issue and generate public awareness and debate about the need to legislate in that area. This can provide a real boost for a campaigning group or individual.
For example, in early 2015, two Senators sponsored a PMB to regulate electronic cigarettes. This helped raise awareness among lawmakers and the public of the health risks associated with electronic cigarettes.
If you are involved in a long-term campaign for legal change, you might find it worth your while to try to persuade a TD or Senator to sponsor a PMB.
If you have access to legal expertise on the issue in question, you could even help your public representatives to draft a Bill accurately.
The Oireachtas itself provides services to assist TDs or Senators in putting the principles they wish to incorporate into a law in the appropriate legislative language.
Help for groups seeking legal change
Some professional lawyers are willing to give their time for free to help non-governmental groups to understand Bills and put forward amendments in the appropriate legal language.
For example, the Public Interest Law Alliance connects Irish community and non-governmental organisations that work with marginalised and disadvantaged people to free legal expertise. Groups can apply for advice on a Bill going through the Oireachtas, or for support in bringing about legal change.
Applications for referral are considered on a case by case basis. PILA does not work with individuals.
Working with TDs and Senators to help to build the case for new laws
Outside of their formal role in scrutinising Bills or introducing PMBs, TDs and Senators can do a range of other things to help highlight the need for legal changes.
Individual TDs and Senators, both government and opposition, are generally prepared to use official channels available to them to take up issues with Ministers, officials and other public representatives.
Some are also prepared to go further and champion particular causes both inside and outside the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Before reaching out to TDs or Senators about your issue, it is important to be clear about what exactly it is that they can do – and to realise that they are not all-powerful.
TDs and Senators can help build the case for new laws by:
- making recommendations to government as part of an Oireachtas committee (see below)
- debating issues with the Taoiseach or a Minister (see below)
- raising an issue in parliamentary party meetings and seeking party support for it
- publicly supporting your issue by making statements on the matter
- participating in a public campaign event
Getting started - working with TDs and Senators
The first thing you need to do is to identify individual TDs or Senators who will take on your issue and use their influence to move it forward.
This may require some research to find out who has an interest in your subject – you can search the official written records of the Dáil or Seanad for key words either on the official Oireachtas website or KildareStreet.com.
It is an advantage if the TD or Senator is a member of a political party, or is an independent who is on record supporting the issue you seek to progress.
Opposition party spokespersons are important targets, as it is their job to ‘shadow’ the work of the Ministeror government department in their subject area. You will find the names of opposition spokespersons listed on the websites of the political parties.
Oireachtas committee recommendations to government
Separate to their role in scrutinising Bills, Oireachtas Committees regularly hold hearings and issue reports to government on particular topics or issues. These must relate to the responsibilities of the government departments which are accountable to them.
Committee members generally agree between themselves what specific issues they want to explore in their hearings.
For example the Education and Social Protection Committee may hold hearings touching on the responsibilities of those two departments. The Committee may invite civil servants and Ministers from those two departments to discuss matters with them.
Committees can also invite experts and interest groups or individuals to make presentations on particular topics or issues. These include non-governmental organisations, experts and academics – more than 1,000 witnesses appear before Committees each year.
These types of Committee hearings can be effective public forums for groups or individuals to generate awareness of the reasons why there is a need for a new law or amendments to existing ones.
If you are invited to appear before an Oireachtas Committee, you may even get some media coverage as their hearings are generally open to journalists and are broadcast live and recorded. It is of course essential to let the media know you are making a presentation and indicate to them why you are doing so.
On foot of their hearings, Committees generally issue reports to the Minister whose department they shadow. These reports can include recommendations to government for policy or legal change.
For example, in 2014, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children invited medical experts and sporting organisations to hearings about the risks of sports-related head injuries to players.
The Committee’s report called on the government to consider setting up a taskforce on sports and concussion to examine its recommendations.
Some Committee recommendations are taken up by government and implemented.
While Committee reports generally do not immediately lead to any direct changes in our laws, they can play an important role in influencing decision-making by putting issues on the public agenda.
In this way, Committee reports can be used by campaigning organisations to keep their issues in the public domain.
Debating issues with the Taoiseach or a Minister
TDs and Senators who are willing to take on your cause can help by raising issues with the Taoiseach and Ministers in the Dáil and Seanad, including matters to do with promised legislation. This is normally done by opposition TDs and Senators through the formal processes of requesting parliamentary debates and asking parliamentary questions.
Members of government parties are not precluded from raising issues with the Taoiseach or a Minister through parliamentary debates. However, it is not encouraged except as a means of giving a Minister an opportunity to put some matter on the formal record of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Topical issue debates in the Dáil
TDs can raise issues of concern to the Minister responsible for that issue each Dáil sitting day (Tuesday to Thursday).
They must give notice of the issue to the Ceann Comhairle – Chair of the Dáil – who picks four issues for debate each day. Both the TD and the Minister are allowed to speak for a total of six minutes each to air their views on the topic.
These are issues which are current and topical. They are usually matters of public debate on the day, and not already on the agenda for debate that day. They could include matters concerning promised legislation in relation to a topical issue.
Debates in the Seanad
Senators too can raise issues of concern to the Minister responsible for that issue at the start of each sitting day (Tuesday to Thursday).
These are called Commencement Matters. Senators must give notice to the Cathaoirleach – Chair of the Seanad – who picks four issues each day. Both the Senator and the Minister may speak for four-minutes each.
Value of debates
While these kinds of debates are short, they offer TDs and Senators an opportunity to raise issues with a Minister, including on behalf of groups or individuals.
These initial debates may lead to useful follow up contact on the matter raised outside the chamber of the Dáil or Seanad between the public representative and the Minister.
Even when there is no concrete outcome, the very fact that a debate has taken place in the parliament can be an important first step in getting an issue ‘on the radar’ of Ministers and their officials.
TDs can help you to get questions answered in parliament by the Taoiseach or by a Minister on an issue which they consider merits national attention.
This is through Parliamentary Questions (PQs) where TDs table questions and receive replies either orally from the Taoiseach or a Minister, or in writing.
PQs can also be a useful means for campaigning groups or individuals to highlight research findings and keep pressure on Ministers and their departments to act on them.
For example, a parliamentary question could ask a Minister to make a statement on what action he or she has taken following a particular report or study. For more information on PQs, including tips on how to draft them, see the Toolkit Guide to Finding Official Information.
Checklist for making a submission to an Oireachtas Committee
If you are making a written submission to an Oireachtas Committee about a particular issue or a piece of legislation, you should follow this general structure:
- A short introduction, explaining your area of expertise as an individual or an organisation.
- A summary of relevant factual information to support your analysis of the draft law or topic under discussion. For example, you might point to reliable statistics or study findings.
- In the case of hearings on General Schemes of Bills (as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process) include detailed comment on particular sections that you are concerned about.
- For hearings on general topics, clearly set out your recommendations for change and the reasons why you consider change is needed.
Be sure to number the pages of submissions (and the sections if it is a long document) and include a separate cover letter with your name and contact details. You should also indicate in a covering letter if you are prepared to appear in public session at any Committee meeting.
You should email your submission to the address supplied on the Committee’s invitation – not to individual Committee members. The clerk of the Committee will distribute your submission to all members. You do not need to send hard copies, and many Committees discourage this.
Tips for working with TDs and Senators for legal change
TDs and senators work under enormous time constraints. Their offices are swamped with emails and requests for meetings and assistance from groups and individuals.
Here are some tips for working effectively with TDs and Senators for legal change:
1. Do your homework
Find out which TDs or Senators are interested in your topic. When it comes to constituency issues, the obvious initial targets are all TDs for that constituency.
Opposition parties also appoint spokespeople whose job is to shadow the work of departments or Ministers: Identify which one covers your issue and make contact.
If an Oireachtas Committee has formal responsibility for your area, find out who chairs it, who its members are and, initially at least, which of them may be interested in your issue.
Legislators who are members of a particular committee are usually there because they chose that as their area of interest. If not, they quickly develop an expertise in that area.
Out of a 15 member committee, you might find that only a minority are interested in your specific issue. Your objective should be to broaden that base by raising their level of awareness of the issue.
To identify the specific interests of TDs or Senators who might support a particular cause, you should track their speeches and media appearances. You can search the Oireachtas records on the official Oireachtas website, or the volunteer-run website which also carries the parliamentary record, KildareStreet.com.
KildareStreet.com also allows you to set up your own searches for key topics or individual TDs or Senators, and will send you regular emails when your search results appear in the Oireachtas records of debates and committee meetings.
Seanad members do not have the same kinds of geographical constituencies as TDs and therefore are not necessarily involved in constituency issues.
However some may have ambitions to become TDs, and they usually therefore focus on the constituency in which they wish to be elected.
In the Seanad too there are generally party spokespeople for particular areas (from those Senators who are members of a political party).
The main advantage of having Senators on your side is that you have a second chamber for your issue to be raised.
Also many of them are not constrained by constituency and electoral demands and may feel freer therefore in raising issues considered ‘unpopular' with most voters.
2. Seek informal meetings
TDs or Senators who are interested in your area are generally happy to meet individuals or groups and will often give useful advice on how to identify the correct point of contact for your issue – which in some cases may not be an Oireachtas member.
4. Seek an appearance before an Oireachtas Committee
Committees get many requests from interest groups, activists and individuals who want to appear before them. You need to carefully plan your approach and follow up. Committee chairs are usually open to informal meetings and can advise you on how to proceed.
3. Build relationships
Politics and public life is all about building relationships and establishing trust. After your initial contact with TDs and Senators, you need to continue to keep channels of communication open, either directly or through their research and advisory staff.
Send a follow-up letter of thanks after meetings. Share useful information with the public representatives on your topic but do not inundate them with unnecessarily long documents. They simply will not have the time to read everything if they have to read ten pages from you every time you write.
Invite them to launches or celebratory events where there are opportunities for media coverage – politicians, who face unemployment at least every five years, generally welcome media coverage. This allows their electorate know they are active on their behalf. Also, having politicians present can also enhance the possibility of media coverage for an issue.
4. Get your message straight
Prepare well for a meeting with TDs or Senators, or an appearance at an Oireachtas Committee hearing. Hone your message and be sure to make your case clearly and simply. Answer questions calmly and to the point. If you don’t have the answer to a question admit it and promise to get back to members with the answer. Avoid verbal rows and provocative language. You are there to persuade.
5. Be patient
Securing a legislative change can be a very slow process. You need to work to a realistic timeframe. It is also important for the context and timing to be right. For example, you may know that some TDs and Ministers will not be willing to champion an issue they consider may lose them support before a general election. However, the issue should nevertheless be raised and promoted as a means of seeking to popularise it in the course of an election campaign.
Are you subject to new lobbying reporting rules?
Groups and organisations communicating with public officials, including Ministers, TDs and Senators, about the preparation or amendments of laws, may need to register with the authorities and formally report on their lobbying activities in an online public register.
This is a legal requirement under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, which came into force in September 2015.
The law which was introduced to allow the public to rountinely have information about 'who is lobbying whom about what' at senior levels.
You can find out more, and take a three step test to see whether you are lobbying, on the official website, www.lobbying.ie
Oireachtas Committees for public consultations and petitions
While all Oireachtas Committees engage with groups and members of the public as part of their ongoing work, two committees established in recent years focus exclusively on engaging with the public.
The Seanad Public Consultation Committee invites submissions on issues of public interest that it chooses. It can seek written submissions from members of the public and interest groups and also hold hearings.
It then issues report for debate in the Seanad or the relevant Joint Oireachtas Committee. So far, its topics have included farm safety and civil and political rights.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions handles petitions directly from members of the public. Its purpose is to help identify ways to improve public services.
It provieds a direct channel for individual citizens and groups across to influence the parliamentary agenda. Anyone can make a petition.
While only one signature is required, there is no limit to the number of signatures that can be added to a petition. The petition has to relate to matters on which the Houses of the Oireachtas have the power to act.
If your petition is accepted, you could be asked to appear before the Committee to speak about the issue.
The Committee has the power to:
- refer a petition to another Committee, requesting that it consider it and report back to the Petitions Committee
- make recommendations to the Dáil or Seanad
- refer a petition to the relevant Ombudsman, regulatory or redress body
After considering a petition, the Committee usually produces a report setting out its findings and making recommendations to the Government or the relevant public body.
You can see a list of petitions already received by the Committee.
The Campaign to Criminalise Forced Labour
In 2013, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland successfully campaigned for a law to make forced labour a crime in Ireland.
The change was introduced in an amendment to the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act. This will ensure victims of forced labour will receive greater protection and employers who commit this criminal act can now be prosecuted.
Here, the centre’s workplace rights co-ordinator, Grainne O’Toole, explains how the group used its understanding of the law-making process to secure the change they sought after two years of campaigning:
"Forced labour is an extreme form of exploitation which is often referred to as modern day slavery. We at MRCI identified that Irish law did not treat it as a crime. The law needed to be changed so that perpetrators could be prosecuted."
How knowledge of law-making system was used
"First, a group of people who had suffered forced labour developed a campaign plan to achieve the goal of making forced labour a crime. Next, we formed alliances with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the International Trade Union Confederation and Anti-Slavery International to get enough power to make our issue count.
We also involved international experts on forced labour to add external pressure to our campaign.
We targeted the law making system through:
- making our case to civil servants and politicians.
- appearing before the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and seeking commitment to change the law
- identifying political champions in the Oireachtas to take on our issue. Two government TDs raised the problem for Topical Debate with the Minister. Along with opposition TDs, they put down parliamentary questions to keep the issue alive.
- asking Senators to debate the issue in the Seanad with the Minister.
We also got stories out in the media from people’s experiences of forced labour, including on RTE’s Prime Time Investigates. This work also indirectly influenced the political system."
"We carried out direct action outside the Dáil and the places of employers where exploitation had taken place, such as restaurants. Finally, we supported workers who had experienced forced labour to take successful cases to the employment courts for compensation for the breach of their employment rights.
Through all of these tactics, we kept pressure on our target – the person who had the power to make the change we were seeking – who was the Minister for Justice.
We were helped by the fact that an EU Directive on Human Trafficking had to be implemented in Irish law by a certain date. As human trafficking is a form of forced labour, we were able to push for the government to speed up the process."
Advice for others seeking legal change
"It’s tough enough to read legislation because the language can be off-putting, but the important thing is to understand your problem and how your change could fit in. The law may seem complicated to the majority of us, but it is not beyond us to understand it.
Through the Public Interest Law Alliance, a barrister prepared a legal opinion on what would be needed to make forced labour a crime. This helped us understand the legal case for the change we wanted. We went through this document and simplified the language to meet our campaign needs.
Start early and provide suggestions and solutions to officials who are working on the law ahead of time. A lot of this is negotiated with civil servants. It can nearly be too late by the time a draft bill is published. When a law goes into the first stage or second stage in the Oireachtas, you need to have the politicians well briefed beforehand."
Further information on law making and the Oireachtas
There are many useful sources of information about how laws are made and what laws are currently in force.
Updates on progress of government bills
The Department of Taoiseach’s website regularly publishes progress updates on bills at various stages of development.
The Government's Legislative Programme is updated by the Government Chief Whip at the start of each parliamentary term – in spring, autumn, and winter.
Details of laws in force
- The Irish Statute Bookwebsite contains all Acts introduced since 1922. It also gives details of commencement orders that have brought particular sections of Acts in to force.
- Laws tend to get amended over the years, and the Legislation Directory, section of the Irish Statute Book website lists amendments to Acts.
- Unfortunately, there is no one place where you can find all Acts and their amendments in one document. However, the Law Reform Commission publishes more than 200 Revised Acts (with amendments to date. For each of these acts, the orogianl law and any changes introduced by amending legislation are brought together in a single text.
- The Houses of the Oireachtas website has all Acts passed from 1992 to date, as well as all bills published since 1997. This site also contains details of the legislative history of bills to date, including links to all relevant parliamentary debates.
Information on how parliament works
The Oireachtas website
This contains various factual guides setting out how parliament works. These include:
KildareStreet.com is an independently-run searchable archive of everything that's been said in the Dáil and all written parliamentary questions since January 2004, everything in the Seanad since September 2002, and all Committee meetings since September 2012. Its search functions are particularly useful if you wish to examine what has been said in either the Dáil or the Seanad, or sift through parliamentary questions.
Oireachtas Brief website
Oireachtas Brief contains detailed information explaining how the Oireachtas works, as well as practical insights for groups and individuals who want to influence laws. The site was set up as part of an information service for social justice NGOs and voluntary sector activists interested in issues of poverty and social exclusion. The service used to include regular newsletters covering relevant developments. While it no longer supplies these newsletters, the information on the site remains relevant.
Public Affairs Ireland updates
Public Affairs Ireland is a non-government specialist education, training and research institute. It publishes a weekly online newsletter containing updates on legislative, regulatory and public affairs events and developments.
Updates on parliament's activities
- Sign up for weekly email notices from the Oireachtas detailing the work agenda for the Dáil, Seanad and Oireachtas committees. These are sent out on Friday afternoons.
- Sign up for updates on specific topics or the activities of individual TDs or Senators. Instead of visiting the Oireachtas website to monitor developments in your area of interest, you can sign up to have them sent to you. These are called RSS (Really Simple Syndication) alerts.
- Sign up for email alerts every time a particular keyword or phrase appears in Oireachtas debates or every time an individual TD or Senator speaks. This service is available on the searchable archive, www.kildarestreet.com