Simplicity the key to drafting laws

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am


Clarity and simplicity are the ABC of good writing. But the basic rules are apparently not appreciated by law drafters around the world. For centuries, the statute book has been filled with acts written in convoluted syntax and jargon. Provisions are often drafted in archaic legal language, with complicated sentence structures running into hundreds of words without breaks. Hong Kong, being a common-law jurisdiction, is no exception. Our ordinances are often written in such a technical way that they are largely incomprehensible to laypersons.

The pledge by the Department of Justice to adopt simple style in law drafting is therefore a welcome change. Starting from this year, new legislation will be written in a more user-friendly way to make legal matters clearer and more accessible to the people. Indeed, other jurisdictions have long since recognised the need to modernise and switch to plain language when drafting laws. Hong Kong has to ensure it also speaks the same legal tongue in the modern world.

The need for precision and accuracy has often been cited as the reason why legislation is difficult to read. The use of lengthy clauses, legal jargon, archaic words and phrases borrowed from other languages has made things worse.

But certainty and simplicity are not mutually exclusive. Some of the suggestions in the department's 323-page guidebook published early this year appear to be basic enough. For instance, law drafters are told to avoid the passive voice and double negatives. That such advice has been given only this year is baffling. Also, the guidebook seems not to go far enough. It is still acceptable to write five lines of unbroken text, or keep a clause to six sub-clauses at most.

Law drafting is the art of turning abstract legislative concepts into legally sound and effective measures. Our drafters deserve credit for rising to the challenge. However, it would be meaningless if in the end people still do not understand the legislation. Simplicity is the key.