What was the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939?


The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 was emergency legislation passed just prior to the outbreak of World War II by the Parliament of the United Kingdom to enable the British Government to take up emergency powers to prosecute the war effectively.

It contained clauses giving the government wide powers to create Defence Regulations which regulated almost every aspect of everyday life in the country. Two offences under the regulations were punishable with death.


The Act was passed in reaction to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939 and provided the government with powers from 24 August 1939. It was originally intended to be in force for only one year, and made general provision for prosecuting the war effort. In particular, it provided for the following:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, His Majesty may by Order in Council make such Regulations (in this Act referred to as “Defence Regulations”) as appear to him to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of the realm, the maintenance of public order and the efficient prosecution of any war His Majesty may be engaged, and for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the powers conferred by the preceding subsection, Defence Regulations may, so far as appears to His Majesty in Council to be necessary or expedient for any of the purposes mentioned in that subsection:-

(a) Make provision for the apprehension, trial, and punishment of persons offending against the Regulations and for the detention of persons whose detention appears to the Secretary of State to be expedient in the interests of the public safety or the defence of the realm;

(b) authorise –

(i) the taking of possession or control, on behalf of His Majesty, of any property or undertaking;
(ii) the acquisition, on behalf of His Majesty, of any property other than land;
(c) authorise the entering and searching of any premises; and

(d) provide for amending any enactment, for suspending the operation of any enactment, and for applying any enactment with or without modification.

Extension of Powers

The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1940 extended the 1939 Act for another year, and provided for annual extensions by parliamentary resolution. It significantly extended the government’s powers under the Defence Regulations to require persons “to place themselves, their services and their property at the disposal of His Majesty.”

The Emergency Powers (Defence) (No.2) Act 1940 enabled the creation of special courts to administer criminal justice in war zones, as well as authorising them to punish offenders for violating the Defence Regulations.


The Act was repealed on 25 March 1959 by the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act 1959, but the last of the Defence Regulations did not expire until 31 December 1964.


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