Private bills developed in the United Kingdom as a means of obtaining redress from a specific wrong or obtaining a benefit that was not otherwise available through statute or the common law. (Divorces, citizenship, and corporate charters were often granted this way.) The term should not be confused with a private member's bill, which in the Westminster system is a public bill proposed by an individual parliamentarian rather than the government. Technically speaking, a private bill is a proposal; if it becomes law, it becomes a private act or in the UK since 1798, a local and personal act.
There are many examples of such private legislation in democratic countries, although the use of such bills has changed over time.
In the United Kingdom Parliament, private bills were used in the nineteenth century to create corporations, grant monopolies and give individuals rights in excess of the public law. Their most frequent use was for the construction of railways, canals and other works projects, and by local authorities. Their use has become more limited in the twentieth century as statute law (principally the Transport and Works Act 1992) and statutory instruments have enabled many previous situations to be dealt with through other legislative mechanisms. They are still sometimes used in the UK for purposes such as corporate restructurings, where the corporations in question have particularly complicated legal histories, one example being the HBOS Group Reorganisation Act 2006.
In Canada, private bills today are used in a similar way with older organizations, such as the bill s-1001 in 2006 restructuring Scouts Canada. Private bills can also be used to give official government tribute to some person or group. Unlike with most other legislation, it is common for private bills to originate in the Senate rather than the House. For the first hundred years after Confederation, private bills were more common. For example, prior to the passage of the Divorce Act in 1968 it was only possible to obtain a legislative divorce. This required an application to the Canadian Senate which reviewed and investigated petitions for divorce. The final report of the committee handling the case would then be voted upon by the Senate and subsequently made into a Canadian law.
In the United States, private bills were common between 1817 and 1971. Now federal agencies are able to deal with most of the issues that were previously dealt with under private bills as these agencies have been granted sufficient discretion by the United States Congress to deal with exceptions to the general legislative scheme of various laws. The kinds of private bills that are still introduced include grants of citizenship to individuals who are otherwise ineligible for normal visa processing; alleviation of tax liability; armed services decorations and veteran benefits.