Glossary of terms for the Private Bill Witness database


The evidence given by a witness is recorded as a verbatim account, directly taken from shorthand notes, of the examination and cross-examination at the Opposed Bill Committee hearing.  It gives information concerning the intentions of promoters of new projects, and the evidence on later amending bills. It also provides detail of the subsequent history of the undertakings. As a whole the class of Opposed Private Bill Evidence forms a principal source for the entire range of Private Bill legislation relating to transport, public works and town improvement.

Opposed Private Bill Committees

A private bill is classified as 'opposed' if there are petitions against it from those who would be affected by it.  Opposed Private Bill Committees hear the parties, their witnesses and adjudicates between them.  The committee may decide that the bill should be allowed to proceed, with or without amendments, or "that it is not expedient to proceed further with the bill".

Parliamentary Agents

Parliamentary Agents are solicitors who are licensed by the Houses of Parliament to draft, promote or oppose Private Bills.

Parliamentary Counsel

Parliamentary Counsel are solicitors who prepare legislation that it is proposed to pass into law. The term Parliamentary draftsman (or draughtsman) is also widely used to describe them. Counsel can also participate in the Private Bill Committee process, examining witnesses, for example.


A petitioner may be someone who petitioned Parliament for the introduction of a Private Bill, on behalf of the promoting organisation (e.g. the local authority or company wanting to build a railway, road or canal, or create the civic improvement which the bill proposes) or they may be an individual, organisation or group of individuals who petitioned against the bill once it had been introduced to Parliament, because they opposed it in some way. 

Private Bills

Private bills are promoted by individuals or organisations outside Parliament (e.g. local authorities or companies) to obtain powers for themselves in excess of, or in conflict with, the general law. They are promoted by the parties who seek to benefit from their provisions (who petition for leave to introduce a bill) rather than by the Government or by Members of either House. Private Bills gave rise to much of the infrastructure of nineteenth and twentieth century Great Britain and Ireland. Bills for the construction of railways were the most common, but there were many others, including dock, harbour, canal, turnpike, inclosure, civic improvement, tramway, local authority, gas and water and electricity bills. There are now relatively few private bills in each Parliamentary session.


A witness is someone who appeared at the Opposed Private Bill Committee hearing, was questioned and gave evidence on the bill. Witnesses may be promoters of the bill, railway engineers or other expert witnesses, or property holders and other members of the public who would be affected by the bill. The witnesses were examined by the Chairman and sometimes also by members of the committee, as well as by counsel for and against the bill.