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Writing Laws in Plain English in New Zealand

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Last week Cynthia talked about International Plain Language Day and the global movement to improve the use of plain language in government and legal writing.  This week, as a follow-up to International Plain Language Day, I would like to take a look at New Zealand‘s approach to using plain English in the country’s laws.  I became familiar with this topic during my previous work at a New Zealand government agency.  Departmental advisers in New Zealand need to work closely with Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) staff who draft legislation, as well as with bodies such as the Law Commission and the Legislation Advisory Committee, which seek to ensure that laws are clear, fit for their intended purpose, and up to date.

The PCO has published part of its in-house manual on its website to assist other agencies that may need to draft subordinate legislation.  The chapter titled “Principles of Clear Drafting” provides a good insight into the approach and practices of the PCO in relation to using plain language tools in legislation.  Some of the guidance in the manual includes the following.

  • Basic principles, such as “make sentences simple and logical”; “use the positive rather than the negative”; “avoid double and triple negatives”; “use the active voice rather than the passive”; “use verbs instead of noun phrases”; “do not mix conditions and exceptions in the same sentence”; and “avoid noun strings”
  • The need to organize material clearly, put yourself in the readers’ shoes, keep sentences “short and simple”, and “punctuate effectively”
  • Other aspects of style and construction, including “Use narrative style—Avoid excessive cross-references” and “Avoid suspense—Get to main point early”
  • The need for drafters to “use simple and familiar words unless they do not accurately express the intended meaning” (a list of examples of “fancy” and “plain” words is provided and there are also lists of examples of archaic words and phrases “traditionally associated with legal writing” that should not be used in legislative drafting, and of unnecessary words that can be eliminated and replaced by shorter phrases)

In addition to using a plain language approach in any new laws, there has been an effort in recent years to modernize the language and content of older statutes.  One example of the increased emphasis on plain language drafting is the repeal of the Property Law Act 1952 and its replacement with the Property Law Act 2007.  It is interesting to go through some of the provisions in the two statutes to see how drafting practices have changed.  For example, section 4 of the 1952 Act states:

Every deed, whether or not affecting property, shall be signed by the party to be bound thereby, and shall also be attested by at least one witness, and, if the deed is executed in New Zealand, the witness shall add to his signature his place of abode and calling or description, but no particular form of words shall be requisite for the attestation.

In comparison, section 9 of the 2007 Act is constructed very differently and uses simple language.  It states that:

(1) A deed must be

(a) in writing; and
(b) executed in accordance with this section; and
(c) delivered in accordance with this section.

(2) An individual executes a deed if—

(a) he or she signs the deed; and
(b) his or her signature is witnessed in accordance with subsection (7).

And further that:

(7) A witness—

(a) must not be a party to the deed; and
(b) must sign the deed; and
(c) if signing in New Zealand, must add—

(i) the name of the city, town, or locality where he or she ordinarily resides; and
(ii) his or her occupation or description.

(8) No particular form of words is required for the purposes of subsection (7)(c).

New Zealand’s Attorney-General, Hon. Christopher Finlayson, focused on the use of plain English in legislation during his speech at the 2010 New Zealand Plain English Awards.  He said that “clear and accessible law is a fundamental part of the rule of law.”  Furthermore, in order for people to understand legislation, and for the courts to interpret it, “Parliament needs to do its job properly – waffly and imprecise wording is of no use to anyone.”  He went on to say later in his speech that “it takes far more skill to write in plain English than to write in dense, complex English” and that “the development of clear and precise writing must be a priority for our education system, and a goal for all of us.”  In emphasizing the importance of plain English, Mr. Finalyson quoted Mark Twain and an article by Joseph Kimble during his speech.

Mr. Finlayson also referred to the government’s Legislation Bill, which he introduced in June 2010.  The purpose of this bill is to “modernise and improve the law relating to the publication, availability, reprinting, revision, and official versions of legislation in a single piece of legislation.”  In researching this post, I was also interested to find that a group called Plain English Power has drafted a Plain English Bill that was inspired by the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010.  This would be promoted as a Member’s Bill, but has not yet been drawn from the ballot for introduction.

The annual Plain English Awards recognize excellent plain English writing in both government and business.  In 2010, the winners included a number of government agencies, including the Office of the Auditor-General (for its overall commitment to clarity) and the Accident Compensation Commission (for a brochure on handling cattle safely).  However, some agencies also receivedBrainstrain Awards,” which were accepted with promises to do better.

In researching the laws of other countries, including New Zealand, I am always appreciative of plain language drafting and well-structured legislation.  Mr. Finlayson noted in his speech that “abuse of English by governments, government departments, and business” has a “direct effect on productivity.”  This is true for my own work, where clear and accessible laws allow me to respond to requests more efficiently and effectively, and also for anyone else that needs to access and understand the content of legislation, whether in a personal, professional, or academic context.


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