Noticing the details

It may not quite be a consensus, but I suspect that one common conception of good law is simply less law. Academics have tried to measure legal complexity by counting paragraphs; lobbyists and ministers rail against red tape. I’d like to put in a plea for detail. I’ll offer two examples and sketch a possible mitigation.

Local council tax reduction schemes

Each English local authority responsible for collecting council tax is required to operate a corresponding support scheme for residents facing difficulty in payment. For working age claimants, councils are free to devise their own local schemes – pension age claimants come under national arrangements.

There is a general requirement that local authorities publish their local schemes; sensibly most authorities make them available online. However the law only stipulates that the schemes are published, not how. Some have proved remarkably difficult to winkle out.

(3) Having made a scheme, the authority must publish it in such manner as the authority thinks fit.

It would be very useful if local authorities were required to:

  • publish their final schemes online by a certain date each year, prior to their taking effect
  • state explicitly that the schemes are final rather than draft
  • explicitly date schemes including the date they were approved by council.
  • indicate if schemes are unchanged from one year to the next
  • register their schemes with a public registry

It would also be useful to provide for consequences in the event of failure to publish a scheme (if a council fails to make a scheme, a default scheme applies).

Universal credit: are you our kind of person?

Universal credit, for all its troubles, has been blessed with some fairly clear regulations. Unfortunately, it has also been cursed by some remarkably taxing commencement orders. A recent change gives the Secretary of State discretion to refuse claims from arbitrary classes of claimant (they can then claim so-called legacy benefits instead). Unfortunately no method is specified for publicizing the operation of this discretion. It would be very useful for advisers and the public at large to be able to find out where and how this discretion is being exercised.

As a particular example, a recent commencement order provides for couples to make new claims for universal credit in some parts of the country. Previously, only single people could initiate a claim. DWP published a press release on .GOV.UK, stating that:

As well as being available to couples who are both out-of-work, eventually people may also be able to claim Universal Credit if 1 or both partners is in work and their combined take home pay is under £525 per month.

The order enabling couple claims does not provide for any delay in claims by couples who happen to be in low paid work. So is this an exercise of the general power to refuse claims, or just an error in the press release? 1 It would be useful to know, which means it would be useful to have a way of knowing.

Structured notices

Legislation often requires authorities and other organizations to publish notices in newspapers or the official gazettes.

Perhaps there ought to be a class or classes of structured notice. By default, a structured notice might:

  • state the legislation under which it falls
  • state its geographical extent
  • state its effective date or dates
  • have a standardized permanent unique resource identifier
  • be tagged with the responsible department or authority, by name and by digital signature
  • give a notification date in advance of its earliest effective date
  • have default consequences for failure to publish

Specialized notice templates could inherit and if necessary override the properties of the default or root template.

We could then say things like:

  • Each billing authority shall publish its scheme as a local structured notice no later than four weeks before the scheme takes effect; or

  • the SoS will publish amendments to the scope of the universal credit client group as a departmental structured notice

thereby importing all the properties – obligations – of the specified class of notice without having to spell them out again in statute. It should then be possible for interested parties to subscribe to notice feeds: by department, type, authority, extent etc.

  1. It was an error in the press release, since corrected. 

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