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New prince gives gift of time to U.K.’s efforts to revamp succession laws

Britain's Prince Charles (front row, L-R), Queen Elizabeth and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, stand in the royal box at the Coronation Festival Evening Gala at Buckingham Palace in central London July 11, 2013.

POOL/PA

With the birth of their son, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have unwittingly given the British government some breathing room in efforts to modernize royal succession laws.

The U.K. passed a law giving females equal rights to the throne earlier this year. However, the new rules do not come into effect until 15 other countries where the Queen is also head of state – known as realms – first revamp their own laws.

However, a Quebec court challenge threatens to derail the endeavour.

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Here's more on the challenges of succession law reform:

What is the British government trying to do?
The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in the spring of 2011 provided an incentive for the British government to bring royal succession laws into the 21st century by providing for gender equality as well as allowing heirs to succeed to the throne if they marry Roman Catholics.

The change would have meant that a first-born girl would have remained third in line to the throne even if the royal couple eventually had a son. Current rules allow boys to leapfrog over their older sisters.

At a Commonwealth meeting in Australia in October, 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron got agreement from all 15 other realms – including large countries such as Canada and Australia and tiny ones like Tuvalu and Belize – to approve similar changes in their own laws.

What's happening in Canada?
The Canadian Parliament approved the U.K.'s law by passing the Succession to the Throne Act in March. The federal law consented to the British bill, rather than changing Canadian law.

However, two Quebec university professors have filed a lawsuit challenging the approval on the basis that it is unconstitutional. The suit contends that the law represents a constitutional amendment and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government failed to obtain approval of all the provinces as required under the constitution. The Quebec government is expected to join the suit as an intervenor.

Meanwhile, Democracy Watch, a government watchdog group, is planning to file a similar court challenge in Ontario and may also apply to become an intervenor in the Quebec case, said co-ordinator Tyler Sommers. The group wants to see the monarchy abolished in Canada.

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"Rather than making these changes to the monarchy in Canada, the Canadian government should retire the monarchy and establish a democratically selected head of state," Mr. Sommers said.

For its part, the Canadian government intends to defend the law and maintains that a constitutional amendment is not required.

What does the birth of a boy do to those efforts?
In producing a first-born male heir, the royal couple gave the British government the gift of time.

"The birth of a baby boy removes the urgency, but all politicians know that a political project only has a limited shelf life," said Robert Hazell, a professor of British politics and director of the Constitution Unit at University College London.

Prof. Hazell said the U.K. government will "do everything it can to keep up the pressure on the realms" to change their laws in the next six to 12 months. The government has said it will wait until all the realms have made the change before bringing its own law into force.

However, the Quebec lawsuit will likely take years to wind its way through the legal system.

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Ultimately, if some realm countries do not successfully change their laws, they could theoretically split the line of succession with two royals reigning in different countries. For example, if William and Kate's firstborn had been a girl followed by a boy, their daughter could have become Queen of England while their son could have become King of another country.

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