Below the Surface: Comparing Legislative History Usage by the House of Lords and the Supreme Court

81 Pages Posted: 24 Nov 2006

Date Written: November 2006


In 1992, the Law Lords (the judicial arm of the House of Lords) overruled more than two centuries of precedent when it decided in Pepper v. Hart that courts could refer to and rely on legislative history to aid in construing enacted laws. The ensuing fourteen years have witnessed a robust debate among British judges and legal scholars as to the scope and propriety of Pepper. This article offers the first empirical and comparative analysis of how Britain's highest court has used previously excluded legislative history materials in its judicial decisions.

Although the Law Lords opened the door to reliance on legislative history at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has been clamping down on such usage, the article demonstrates that citation to parliamentary materials by the Law Lords since 1996 does not approach the levels of reliance on congressional materials currently practiced by the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding Justice Scalia's appreciable influence, Supreme Court justices continue to make use of legislative history in their opinions between three and five times more often than their counterparts in Britain. The article accounts for this divergent pattern of U.S. and British usage based on certain key differences in their respective lawmaking processes and structures — notably the disparate roles played by standing committees, the varying importance of legislative bargains following bill introduction, and the breadth of legislative history sources available under each system.

Still, despite a spirited reaction to Pepper by several judges on the Law Lords, references to legislative history have increased since 2000. Moreover, the Law Lords in two very recent decisions have gone beyond Pepper in setting forth grounds for relying on parliamentary materials. The article predicts that Britain's highest court is in the process of consolidating if not augmenting a permanent role for legislative history as an interpretive asset. The article then suggests how this development should invite a different kind of dialogue about legislative history among justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Keywords: legislation, interpretation

JEL Classification: K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Brudney, James Jules, Below the Surface: Comparing Legislative History Usage by the House of Lords and the Supreme Court (November 2006). Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 83. Available at SSRN: or

James Jules Brudney (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-7387 (Phone)

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