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Plain English Laws in England

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Cynthia informed us about International Plan Language Day and the global movement to improve the use of plain language in government and legal writing.  Kelly continued the trend and wrote about New Zealand’s approach to using plain English in the country’s laws.  I thought I would continue the series.

Despite the last, rather confusing weird law in my post the other week, there is a movement in the UK towards greater use of plain English in legislation, and by the government.  However, there is no legislation in force that requires the use of plain English.

There has been a lot of active use of “plain English” in the UK, with a large number of reports being published on the subject.  An ongoing (and very welcomed) tax re-write project is underway, with the Inland Revenue re-writing a large body of law which it described as:

too long and too complicated. Some experts have described it as incomprehensible …. the project is to rewrite most of the existing primary legislation on Inland Revenue taxes … The rewrite will use several techniques to make the legislation easier to understand, including plain language, rationalisation of definitions, reordering and renumbering, omitting outdated or unnecessary material, and better signposting and layout.

Within the local governments, there has also been a push to use plainer, more simple language.  There is even a list of banned words that should not be used by local governments, which after a quick glance over thankfully is not the majority of my vocabulary.  Included among the list are such literary gems as “brain dump;” “blue sky thinking;” “can-do culture” (that was a personal pet peeve there); “wellderly” (that’s a word?(!)); and “who blinks first.”

The difficulty in drafting legislation in plain English should not be understated.  In an interview, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has stated:

The balance to be struck is making the bill sufficiently detailed for it to be clear to the courts what we meant, but not so complex that it might be clear to the courts but it’s unclear to everybody else. And that’s why we’re publishing bills in plain English alongside the kind of legalese …  I do think that if a law of the land is being passed by the House of Commons it should be understandable by the people upon whom it imposes obligations or on whom it confers rights, and I don’t think that you should have institutionalised the sense that you’ve got to get somebody to interpret it for you.

As a daily user of a variety of UK Acts, I do think that movement across the UK to improve the clarity of how legislation is written is of great benefit to us all.  Often, critics say that it leaves the law in a state of ambiguity and that it is not “legally clear.”  I think that the volume of cases in reporters over the past few centuries indicate that even with the best use of ‘legalese’ the laws cannot always be clear and precise and often need further clarification in the courts.   I for one am grateful about the use of clear and plain English in legislation.  I think that it is a little sad to see the style of the older legislation being lost, but if I need to reminisce I can just pick up an old tax Act, which normally results in me being thankful once more about the clearer style of writing in legislation.


  1. I think the statement by the Deputy Leader says it all.

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