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Is the text of all UK treaties and laws public?

For example, could an international agreement (treaty) be kept secret from the public?

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    I think the only possible answer to this question is; "we don't know". If it were legal for a law to be kept secret, presumably that principle would be applied to the legislation authorising the secrecy itself. – Dan Scally Sep 30 '19 at 15:01
  • I suppose you wouldn't know until such a law was broken? – 52d6c6af Sep 30 '19 at 15:03
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    According to the Wikipedia description of POPS (private ownership of public spaces), pretty much all of the information pertaining to POPS is not released to the public. The laws itself, however, seems to be public. – CGCampbell Sep 30 '19 at 15:12
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    @DanScally: It makes little sense to do so. The point of making a law (including one about being able to keep other laws secret) is to declare this behavior legal. If there is no record of its legality, people are able to address behavior they think to be illegal. Even if a secret court can deny every such complaint, it still costs administrative effort, and every time they have to deny these complaints means they must explain why this is done, thus revealing the law anyway. – Flater Oct 1 '19 at 6:27
  • @Flater Funny, I always thought a law was to declare something illegal. A secret law would mean you could break the law without knowing it exists. Since ignorance of the law is no defense, I don't see how a system that includes secrets laws could work in a liberal society. – CJ Dennis Oct 1 '19 at 10:14
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Is the text of all UK treaties and laws public?

The short answer is yes, though this has not always been true, so some older treaties that were made in secret might not yet be public.

There is also probably room for secret "agreements" between agencies at a lower level. Such agreements might not be regarded as treaties (or as law).


Laws

As far as I know, all UK laws are either "acts of Parliament" or "case law".

Acts of Parliament

Acts of Parliament means they are debated in Parliament and these debates are recorded in Hansard. All acts of Parliament are in public records and all those made in the last 200 years are available online.

The National Archives make the text of laws available at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/

Anything from 1327 is accessible in the National Archives (the older items are not necessarily on-line, more likely on vellum)

Parliament rolls (1327–2005)

Browse Discovery, our catalogue, for enrolled copies of public acts, and a number of private acts, between 1327 and 2005 in C 65. Some of the original documents are in Latin, Anglo-Norman or Medieval French, but texts and translations have been published on the Parliament Rolls website.

Secondary Legislation

Acts of Parliament can grant ministers and other bodies the power to create law. For example to set the start date a law comes into effect or to amend a list of prohibited substances, etc. Typically this secondary legislation is in the form of "Statutory Instruments" which are also on public record. Note that secondary legislation is subject to scrutiny and approval by Parliament (and hence any discussion of this should be in Parliamentary records)

Case Law

Points of law determined by individual cases brought before a court in the UK are recorded.

The British Library and other services allow case law to be searched. However I suspect it is not easy for a lay person to locate all case law on any specific subject.


Treaties

Before 2010

There have been secret treaties in the past. For example, as Wikipedia puts it

the Treaty of London, 1915, was a secret pact between the Triple Entente and the Kingdom of Italy.

Many provisions of the pact were meant to be kept secret, until the conclusion of the war, but were published by the Bolsheviks when they came to power in Russia in late 1917.

So, at least in time of war, it was possible for at least some of the contents of treaties to be kept secret for at least a year or so.

You can see this Declaration between Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia, declaring that the Declaration of the same date engaging not to Conclude a Separate Peace during the course of the European War shall remain secret

Since 2010

According to a UK government website

Since 2010 it is a statutory legal requirement for the government to lay treaties which the UK has signed subject to ratification or its equivalent, or to which it intends to become party by accession, before both Houses of Parliament.

I think this means that since 2010 new secret treaties are either impossible or more difficult.

The release in 2010 of formerly-secret earlier-agreements might not be coincidental? E.g. See UKUSA released 2010.

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    Can I please see all treaties governing the cooperation between NSA and GHCQ? – Martin Schröder Sep 30 '19 at 20:05
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    @Martin - you mean this sort of thing? – RedGrittyBrick Sep 30 '19 at 21:43
  • Many "laws" (especially in contract law, as opposed to criminal law) are common laws, based on on acts of Parliament, but precedent of previous courts. While these precedents are all public, it may be difficult to get "the text of the law". – James K Sep 30 '19 at 22:15
  • @RedGrittyBrick the document to which you refer was marked "Top Secret" and is relatively recently declassified, indicating it was at the time secret, i.e. not public. All laws, however, a public in the sense of not secret, being either made by parliament (primary statute law), by ministers or other delegated bodies (secondary legislation) or interpreted by judges (whose rulings must be public in order to bind other courts). – abligh Oct 1 '19 at 5:11
  • In the "laws" section, please add a link to the official online repository: legislation.gov.uk – Steve Melnikoff Oct 1 '19 at 8:34
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Yes. There's no such a thing as a secret law in a democracy that follows the rule of law, and secret treaties have been in general decline since the League of Nations. Neither are compatible with the public scrutiny you'd expect in a democracy.

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  • TTIP (which presumably was a treaty) had secret elements. How does this fit in to your answer? – 52d6c6af Sep 30 '19 at 15:03
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    @Ben Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding was that those elements were only secret during negotiations to allow negotiation without political pressure. Once the final text was agreed upon, then it would become public when it was sent to the Legislature for ratification. So, while the negotiations were secret, the final treaty would not have been. – divibisan Sep 30 '19 at 15:17
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    @divibisan: I seem to remember that they were accused of negotiating in secret so that there wouldn't be any public scrutiny on what lobbyists were up to until the ship had sailed. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 30 '19 at 16:34
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    @DenisdeBernardy It's just as much to protect the negotiations from lobbyists: in any negotiation, every side is going to have to make some concessions, but every concession is going to spark protests from a different group of well-funded lobbyists whose only goal is to prevent any concessions that would hurt their industry. In that climate, it would be impossible to actually negotiate anything. By waiting until the whole thing is done to reveal it, the hope is that critics can weight the whole thing together and the industries that are helped will cancel out the ones that might be hurt – divibisan Sep 30 '19 at 18:11
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    "It's just as much to protect the negotiations from lobbyists" -- Oh come on, let's get real here. :) Lobbyists have the ear of decision makers a lot more than the public does. And I also recollect leaks coming out of industry groups at the time (and much more rarely, out of activist groups), which suggests that papers were getting funneled to lobbyists a lot more than elsewhere. As to "the hopes is that critics can weigh the whole thing together" that doesn't pass a sniff test if you've ever been near democratic processes in action. The way to get buy-in is to explain along the way. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 30 '19 at 18:17

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