Sunday January 10, 2016

Is the law too complicated? A call to write laws in plain English

Romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta, by James William Edmund Doyle (1864)

Romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta, by James William Edmund Doyle (1864) (Public Domain)

Listen 11:12

The language of law is complicated.

Reading and understanding the laws on Canada's books takes time, effort, and sometimes a working knowledge of Latin.

Some sections of law contain repetition that obscures otherwise straightforward concepts. For example, a section of the B.C. Family Law Act defines what it means to be a child, and have parents. 

(1) For all purposes of the law of British Columbia,

(a) a person is the child of his or her parents,

(b) a child's parent is the person determined under this Part to be the child's parent, and

(c) the relationship of parent and child and kindred relationships flowing from that relationship must be as determined under this Part.

- Family Law Act, Province of British Columbia

Part (a) is probably straightforward enough, however, if you wanted to find out if parts (b) and (c) applied to you, your child, or your parents, you may need the help of a lawyer.

To John-Paul Boyd, Executive Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, you shouldn't need to hire a lawyer to find out which laws apply to you.

Boyd says, in a democratic society, laws should be written for the people most affected by them, not for lawyers and judges. He says it's time for plain-language laws in Canada.

We live in a system of justice where the courts are open to all. If we live in a system that's governed by the rule of law, there's no reason why you should have to hire a lawyer. But when we have legislation written in incomprehensible language... you do wind up having to hire a lawyer, and it seems to me that it's unfair. - John-Paul Boyd, Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family

Boyd says that to review Canada's laws, and translate them into plain language that most people could understand, would take a lot of time and money. But, the benefits would be worth it.

If we had laws that were clear and comprehensible, as citizens we would have a better understanding of our individual functions in society, how we relate to other people in society, and how government relates to us. - John-Paul Boyd, Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family

In the 1990's, several politicians and lawyers advocated for so-called "plain language" policies. The plain language movement fizzled out, but many still believe in the cause. Ian Waddell was the NDP MP for the BC riding of Port Moody - Coquitlam. In 1992 he introduced a Private Members Bill to create a special committee, which would rewrite new laws to be understandable to lay-people. 

We Canadians are bound by the law, of course. And we should understand that law. And we should be able to read it and understand it. And it should be in a lot more plain English so we can understand it.  - Ian Waddell, former NDP MP

When his bill was introduced, it was criticized for being written in the same legalese he was trying to eradicate. While it didn't pass in the House, Waddell still believes that Canada's laws should be written in plain, easy to understand, everyday French and English.

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