Guest blog: Good law, nine months on

22 January 2014

Last April, 150 people gathered at the Institute for Government for the launch of the Cabinet Office’s ‘good law’ project. I am not sure what the audience were expecting.

Word had got round that John Sheridan (of legislation.gov.uk, and a celebrated linked data pioneer) would be speaking. So the data community was excited. Government lawyers were also there, anticipating a lively discussion on thorny issues. There were academic lawyers, publishers, and campaigners. And there were quite a few people with no affiliation to a clan or profession – attracted maybe by some of the chat on social media beforehand, or maybe by the ‘good law’ label. Was it a manifesto, or a creed, or a provocation?

The speakers talked about the user’s experience of law and law-making. Does law have to be so difficult? How does a reader make sense of a complicated network of statute law? Is it possible to reduce complexity, or improve accessibility, or both?

So ‘good law’ was a call to potential partners in the fields of policy, law-making, and law-publishing. Between us, we’re responsible for the quality and accessibility of legislation. How can we, in our own fields or working together, promote law that is clear, necessary, coherent, effective and accessible?

Where is good law, nine months on?
We’ve talked to policy makers and lawyers about the importance of clear, simple law, the availability of alternatives to legislation and the drawbacks of unnecessary legislation. We call this the ‘upstream’ work.

Externally, we’ve tried to demystify law and law-making. We enjoyed taking part in Parliament Week. And we’ve launched a new user testing programme to discover what readers find difficult.

But from the start, ‘good law’ was not a consultation exercise around a set of proposals. We wanted to generate interest, and then get help in identifying tasks that would move things forward. So in the autumn, we returned to the Institute with four working groups. Charities, publishers, academics, and volunteers all generously gave their time to analyse problems and develop ideas.

Here are six areas where we will see progress in 2014.

1. Design
One of the groups looked at the way in which legislation is arranged on the page (or the screen). All words and sentences carry equal visual weight. There is no colour, and little visual emphasis. What could modern information design do to help? We’ll be piloting some ideas soon.

2. Drafting tool
We want a new tool for drafting, amending and publishing legislation that can work in a standard web browser. This is potentially transformational. At present, law drafters, parliamentarians and publishers can’t pool their efforts, or work on the same product. A common platform would mean, for example, that we could easily produce marked-up versions of statutes during a Bill’s passage. We know how helpful it would be if they could see the effect on existing legislation of amendments proposed by a Bill. And what might follow? Direct reader collaboration in the creation of legislative text perhaps? We know that other countries are ahead of us in piloting innovative approaches to law-making: Finland, for example (openministry.info); or Brazil (edemocracia.camara.gov.br).

3. Explanatory notes
Explanatory notes are published by Parliament, to help members understand the Bill they are being asked to approve. We want to improve them. We’ve been looking at content, language and format. Again, we aim to pilot a new format in the spring.

4. Patching the statute book
Our statute book regulates complicated subjects, and many users of law require certainty and precision. So complexity isn’t going away. But we want to eliminate causes of unnecessary confusion. A Bill might say that it applies to contracts made “on or after an appointed day”. That’s logical for the law-maker. But the eventual reader is baffled. So there’s a proposal in the Deregulation Bill currently before Parliament allowing that original provision to be amended after the event so that it refers to an actual date. A modestly helpful reform. And we’re looking at other ideas. Should we do away with the distinction between orders, rules and regulations? Or between “clauses” and “sections”?

5. Up to date legislation
In October we announced that the good law principles are embedded in the UK’s Open Government Partnership action plan. One of our commitments was that we will bring the entirety of primary legislation on legislation.gov.uk up to date, and in an open format, by the end of 2015. That’s a long-held ambition. What’s involved in this final push? Partners from government, commercial and voluntary organisations have been gathering and reviewing the remaining 120,000 amendments. They need to be applied to the database. Users will see the amount of up-to-date revised legislation on legislation.gov.uk starting to increase rapidly from the spring.

6. Mapping the statute book
Search engines can help you find a particular law. But imagine a visualisation that maps the entire statute book. Or try to trace the use of a particular phrase in legislation over time. If you’re a drafter, try to find quickly all the ways in which statutes have created criminal offences, and to find which formulations have caused problems.

At the moment these types of project are almost impossible. But cheap cloud computing, open source software, and data analysis are transforming research elsewhere. Big data research is perfectly possible with legislation too: but the basic ingredients (data, tools and some decent methods) have to be available. Look out for some exciting announcements soon.

So, there’s good stuff ahead. But good law will always be an invitation to everyone involved in generating or publishing laws to do what they can to make law easier and more accessible. And to everyone else: get interested in law, and keep challenging us to make it better.

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Comments (2)

  1. Christopher Jessel on 28 January 2014 at 4:50 pm

    The video of last April’s discussion mentioned consolidation briefly but most of the discussion turned on new legislation. I doubt if it will be possible to persuade Parliamentarians to change their ways but it should be possible to do something about the current statute book. In my own area of property law the statutes are scattered from the thirteenth century (with the official text still in Latin) onwards. Landlord and Tenant law is notoriously chaotic. A code is probably impractical and some areas of law, such as agricultural holdings, farm business tenancies and the Rent Act are reasonably self contained but others, including general leasehold law and the law of flats and of enfranchisement is difficult to find, let alone understand. Another area is rights of way, partly in the Highways Act 1980 but otherwise to be found in several different Acts and possibly to be further amended in the Deregulation Bill.

  2. Stephen Laws on 27 February 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Good law is an important and exciting project. The progress that has been made, and that is being made, is impressive. One of the perennial issues for those seeking to produce good law is the different needs of different audiences. All new law has, as its primary purpose, a change in the existing law. A significant distinction between different audiences is between those (like Parliamentarians and existing practitioners or other operators in a particular field) whose primary interest is in the nature and extent of the intended change – the route – and those whose primary interest is in the specific application or general operation of the law as it stands after the change – the destination. However, even for those focussed only on the destination, the route is very often an essential part of the context that helps to explain and understand the destination. All law is built on assumptions about what would happen if it did not exist – about what is left on each side of the line that is being drawn – and those assumptions are usually unstated. Sometimes, too, they have to allow for unresolved uncertainties in the legal landscape preceding the change. The assumptions on which every law is built depend on the previous law and – stretching the metaphor – the complications often result from the number of previous stops on the journey. Resolving the tensions between clarity about the route and clarity about the destination, for me, constitutes the major conceptual challenge in the task of achieving accessibility. These issues are also relevant to the work of the big data for law project: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/projects/big-data-for-law, the advisory board for which I am delighted to be chairing. It would be good if an incidental product of that project were ideas and systems that would also help to resolve those tensions in a way that will promote good law.

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