In the Media

At last, a piece of legal history ? it?s the law in plain English

PUBLISHED June 8, 2006

CENTURIES of parliamentary tradition will be swept away next week with a new-style Bill offering a ?plain English? translation of the usual impenetrable legal language. 
The Coroner Reform Draft Bill, published on Monday, will make legal history with an easy-to-understand interpretation of every clause running alongside the text. The simultaneous translation was requested by Harriet Harman, Constitutional Affairs Minister, who said that it was time that the public could read the laws passed in their name.

?Many ministers, let alone MPs, find Bills in the current form hard going, so I don?t know how on earth the public is expected to understand them,? she said.

The translation deciphers the 81 clauses and ten schedules in the 128-page Bill, explaining from scratch how the coroners? system is to be reformed, with a new right of appeal for families who contest the court?s verdict.

Bills regularly make reference to other statute law without any further explanation, making them impossible for anyone without specialist legal knowledge to understand.

The Bill spells out all the relevant sections of previous legislation, providing a complete picture of what is changing for the first-time reader. The plain English translation was carried out by parliamentary draughtsmen, employed by each government department to draw up Bills. Ms Harman hopes that should avoid accusations that it amounts to government spin.

Although the draughtsmen were initially reluctant to try to decipher their work, fearing an accurate clause-by-clause translation would be impossible, they are said to be ?thrilled? with their first attempt.

Ms Harman predicted that soon every Bill would carry its own ?plain English? translation. She said: ?This will help the public to join in the debate. I haven?t spoken to a single minister about this without them saying they want their Bills in this form.?

The English system of common and case law is blamed for the complexity of legislation. Meanings of words are carefully prescribed in law with particular vocabulary used to convey specific meanings. That makes it hard for those outside the legal profession to grasp the meaning of a Bill.

The arcane language survives because the courts are responsible for interpreting legislation, and it is the language they understand. But, experts say, legislation is increasingly baffling and governments in centuries past produced clear and concise Bills. Several Victorian laws were shining examples of plain English. The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, for example, states: ?It is an offence to cause a riot.?

Bad habits crept in during the 20th century. Oliver Heald, a barrister and the Conservatives? constitutional affairs spokesman, said that Harold Wilson was the worst offender, famous for ?massive tomes? of regulatory legislation.

Tony Blair?s predilection for sweeping ?framework? Bills, which can be easily topped up with secondary legislation, has added to the complexity. But Mr Heald said that he fully backed Ms Harman. ?Anything that helps re-engage the public is well worth trying, and our own taskforce on constitutional affairs will be exploring other ways to make Bills more simple,? he said.

The Campaign for Plain English called it a ?great step forward?.

Lawyers, who make a living out of explaining complex legislation, could be the big losers.