Comments on appropriate legislative language

Writing on the Cabinet Office’s good law tumblr, parliamentary counsel Diggory Bailey asks: “What is ‘appropriate legislative language’ and who decides?”

Given that it’s unusual to find an answer in any legal text without at least a little burrowing, appropriate legislative language may simply be that which presents the fewest obstacles and offers the fewest distractions. In particular, language which favours:

  • the plain over the decorative. Fancy writing will not sugar coat bad policy, plain language may sometimes illuminate it.

  • denotation over connotation. Absolutely avoiding connotation’s evil twin: insinuation 1.

  • the enduring over the ephemeral. Extirpate inessential or buried time-dependent references 2.

  • reference over duplication. This may complicate the making of amendments, but offers greater hope that different parts of the law may continue to mesh together. Preferring reference may also help identify candidates for consolidation.

Diggory asks “Are we getting it about right?” That is a tricky question to answer in isolation, for reasons that speak to the limitations of the Good Law project 3, depending as it does upon the useful fiction that we can separate poor construction from bad policy. The language is always likely to be difficult if the policy mechanism is unnecessarily complex or ill-formed, but it may still be appropriate legislative language. It’s rarely just a question of tone, but to be positive I think the tone is generally about right.

Diggory also suggests that some people want a degree of pomp and ceremony. I don’t, at least not in functional parts. Like government itself, the law isn’t a cake: it’s a fungus, both in its extensiveness and its interconnectedness. Statutes aren’t icing: they’re mushrooms. Or toadstools. Be careful what you ingest.

  1. “Schedule 3 re-enacts the current general ban on prisoner voting, but with a few minor changes”, (quoted by Diggory) has a whiff of yah boo sucks to anyone familiar with the context. 

  2. This can come at the cost of some specificity eg electronic communications rather than email-SMS-snapchat-tinder etc. 

  3. Limitations are not a bad thing of course. Projects without limitations are doomed. 

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