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The Legislative Bill Room, California State Capitol. (Photo: ca.gov)

Making Legislation More Readable

Modern drafting standards are intended to assist readers of legislative measures

By Chris Micheli, November 2, 2020 6:22 am

One of the issues that is discussed in legislative drafting is how to make legislation more “readable,” meaning how to make the text of legislative measures easier to understand by those who are subject to the law or those who need to administer or interpret it. As part of Athabasca University’s Graduate Diploma in Legislative Drafting, students are provided some suggestions to make legislation more readable, including the following:

  • Providing overviews,
  • Following standard writing practices,
  • Using standard language,
  • Using formulas, diagrams and similar modes of communicating information.

In terms of providing overviews, some drafters argue that it is easier for readers to understand the relationship between statutory provisions and the detailed requirements of a series of rules if the readers have a mental framework for what they are about to read. How can this be achieved? A statutory scheme can contain a purpose clause, headings, or section notes, all of which could act as providing an overview to the reader.

While legislation generally does not explicitly state the principles that serve as the basis for the law, some laws contain preambles or even lengthy titles which can provide a guide to the reader. Purpose clauses, referred to as statements of legislative intent in many jurisdictions, are used to state the purpose of the legislation being considered. These clauses may provide an introduction to legislative language.

Headings and section notes are sometimes used by legislative drafters to provide a one-word or short title to a forthcoming section of law. These headings can also assist the reader in finding relevant provisions, instead of having to review the entire text of a statute, especially if it is a lengthy one.

Legislative drafters also use several standard writing guidelines to present the text of legislation, such as using the present tense of verbs and the active voice. These contribute to better understanding of the legislative text. Drafters should also avoid the use of provisos that create too many exceptions or qualifications to a general legal rule.

The other important guidelines for making legislation more readable is to use standard language that are known to the general public and are in common use. In addition, legislative drafters should generally avoid old words, Latin terms, and other forms of legalese. All of these modern drafting standards are intended to assist readers of legislative measures, but first they must be implemented by the drafters of these measures.

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