Good law principles, current challenges and what the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel are doing to promote good law.
The good law initiative is an appeal to everyone interested in the making and publishing of law to come together with a shared objective of making legislation work well for the users of today and tomorrow.
TEDx Houses of Parliament speech by former First Parliamentary Counsel Richard Heaton
Good law: the challenge
People find legislation difficult. The volume of statutes and regulations, their piecemeal structure, and their level of detail and frequent amendments, make legislation hard to understand and difficult to comply with. That can hinder economic activity. It can create burdens for businesses and communities. It can obstruct good government, and it can undermine the rule of law.
This is not a new problem, and many things have been done to address particular aspects of it. More people now get involved in the legislative process, through the publication of draft Bills; this is good for democracy and also improves the quality of legislation. Parliamentary Counsel use a plain English style for writing laws, and are keen to try new drafting techniques rather than simply follow precedents. The Law Commission produces special bills for law reform, consolidation and repeals. The Red Tape Challenge is tackling the stock of unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations. And The National Archives have vastly improved user access through legislation.gov.uk.
But this last development also brings into sharp focus the continuing difficulty with legislation. Law has a wider readership than ever before. The web has made it possible for people to find sources of law more easily. Once there, they tend to find the experience confusing. Reading legislation is not intuitive. One part of a statute often needs to be read alongside another; the last dated version is not the complete story; regulations have to be read alongside Acts of Parliament, and sometimes case law as well.
The digital age brings new opportunities as well: tools for publishing and arranging law, and techniques for diagnosing and predicting how law is used. So this is an exciting time for re-thinking how legislation can be made easier for users.
Good law: the vision
The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (OPC) would like the user to experience good law - law that is:
We are asking a range of partners – in government, in Parliament and beyond – to help us get there. For some this may mean challenging their current approach to preparing, making, scrutinising, or publishing legislation. It may mean working more closely together with partners, or knowing better how the user finds legislation, or what they do with it. We want to build a shared accountability for (and pride in) the quality of our law, and to create confidence among users that legislation is for them.
The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel has conducted a review into the causes of complexity. It concluded that there are many causes of complexity in legislation. Some of them are unavoidable in a complicated world in which law is used to balance competing interests. Good law is not a plea for unachievable simplicity.
But the review also observed that there is no compelling incentive within government or Parliament to avoid generating further complexity. As in any complex and inter-dependent system, any change to the overall body of law will cause an exponential increase to its overall complexity. Good law requires us to ask how we can either reverse or manage this growth in complexity.
Content, language, architecture and publication
Good law is not a checklist, or a call for more process. It straddles 4 areas that have traditionally been regarded as separate domains. We think that they are inter-connected, and we invite good law partners to consider each of them from the different perspectives of citizens, professional users and legislators.
How much detail? Is this law necessary? Does it duplicate, or conflict with, another law?
Language and style
Do we know what the likely readership is? Is the language easy to understand?
Architecture of the statute book
What should determine the hierarchy and structure of statute law? What should go into Acts and Regulations?
How will law appear to the online user? What can be done to improve navigation? Should we draft law to be machine-readable?
What is the OPC doing to produce good law?
Parliamentary Counsel are taking practical steps to promote good law, and are encouraging others to do the same.
- We think greater openness about how laws are drafted and debated can help to avoid unnecessary confusion and litigation. So we are sharing our views on statutory interpretation with lawyers, the judiciary and legal educators, and we are publishing more of our previously internal guidance.
- We are working with government policy teams about alternatives to legislation. We are encouraging everyone involved in the legislative process to challenge and be challenged on the level of detail they are proposing to legislate for, and on the case for legislating in the first place.
- We are looking at the explanatory material published with Bills and Acts, to see what improvements might be made.
- We are working with the online publishers of legislation to know what drafting techniques make the user’s experience better. And we are listening to users themselves, through a project run by The National Archives.
These are some examples of the work we are carrying out, alongside our core task of writing laws that are effective and can be readily understood. But we also want to generate a wider debate about the good law principles, as listed above in Good law: the vision. Are they the right ones? How can they be applied and what can we learn from elsewhere?
Relationship with other initiatives
Good law sits naturally alongside:
- the government’s commitment to openness and transparency
- the government’s digital strategy
- the Red Tape Challenge
- work on behavioural insight, and alternatives to legislation
- the Big Data for Law project, which aims to transform our understanding of the statute book
- the drive to reduce public sector burdens and promote efficiency
Good law champions
The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel is creating a network of good law champions, who share our vision and want to work with us to take this initiative forward within their departments. To get involved or to contact the good law champion in your department please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the good law initiative or to contribute your views on the good law principles and how they might be achieved, email email@example.com. You can also visit our good law blog or follow #goodlaw on Twitter.
Published: 16 April 2013
Updated: 25 November 2015
- Updates to Richard Heaton's position
- Added link to the Big Data for Law project.
- Added link to survey on explanatory notes for Bills and Acts
- Added video of Richard Heaton's TEDx Houses of Parliament talk on good law.
- Added information about 'good law champions'.
- Added YouTube video of #goodlaw event
- First published.