Cabinet Office chief calls for laws to be simplified in digital age so that lay citizens are not baffled when they access them
Parliamentary legislation is excessively complex and its confusions undermine the rule of law, according to the official in charge of drafting government statutes.
In a report published on Tuesday, Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, calls for regulations to be made easier to understand so that non-specialists can navigate their way through the maze of regulations.
Judges and legal academics, his report suggests, may be called in to advise on how legislation might be improved at an earlier stage.
“The digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land, but once they have found it, they may be baffled,” Heaton says in the study, When Laws Become Too Complex. “The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.”
In his post of first parliamentary counsel, Heaton is also in charge of the office established in 1869 to improve the drafting of government bills.
“The volume of legislation, its piecemeal structure, its level of detail and frequent amendments, and the interaction with common law and European law, mean that even professional users can find law complex, hard to understand and difficult to comply with,” he says.
“Excessive complexity hinders economic activity, creating burdens for individuals, businesses and communities. It obstructs good government. It undermines the rule of law.”
Heaton’s report coincides with the launch of a “good law initiative” aimed at simplifying legislation, particularly the way it is presented through the government website legislation.gov.uk.
One of the initiative’s ambitions is to “talk to the judges who authoritatively interpret the law and to the universities which teach it, to avoid confusion and facilitate interpretation”.
It also plans to “ensure that legislation is as accessible as possible, and consider what more can be done to improve readability”.
The scheme is backed by Andrew Lansley, the leader of the House of Commons, who said: “As MP and minister, I am well aware of how challenging it is to legislate in a way which effectively, simply and consistently promotes the interests of the people we serve, without creating delay or uncertainty.”
Parliamentary drafting has evolved a more comprehensible form of English since the 19th century but interpreting the law remains an exercise almost exclusively undertaken by experienced lawyers.
The report records that the average number of government bills in a typical parliamentary session is currently between 35 and 50 depending on the length of the session. Between 1983 and 2009 parliament approved more than 100 criminal justice bills and more than 4,000 new criminal offences were created.
The amount of so-called “delegated legislation”, involving statutory instruments, has increased significantly in recent decades from around 2,000 a year in the 1980s to around double that number in 2006.
Frustration at the intricacy and entanglements of the statute book are not new. The report quotes Edward VI (1537-1553) as lamenting: “I wish that the superfluous and tedious statutes were brought into one sum together, and made more plain and short.”
There are more than a million words of law governing immigration controls, the good law project has discovered, far more than the number of words written by Shakespeare. Such complexity may, understandably, baffle even UK Border Agency officials.
Another confusing tradition is that bills going through parliament refer to “clauses”, but when they become acts they become “sections”.
The initiative is intended to complement the government’s campaign against red tape and bureaucracy. “Users perceive complying with legislation to be onerous and the law as being extremely difficult to navigate,” the report says. “In particular, in the areas of planning and environmental applications, procedural bureaucracy is perceived to be a problem for businesses.”
It adds: “Most European countries have set up processes to simplify national legislation and established departments dedicated entirely to better regulation and reform of the law.”
Cutting down on the number of protracted appeals up through the hierarchy of the courts to ascertain the precise meaning of some obscure legislative clause is one aspiration of the project.
Computer-assisted analysis of statutes could help untangle the more impenetrable recesses of the law, the report suggests. “Computational legal studies emerged over a decade ago in the US and are based on the premise that legislation, as any other sets of complex and intertwined information, can be analysed and organised according to mathematical models.
“If we look at statutes as data, then legislation can be formalised (and visualised) as a mathematical object, a hierarchically organised structure containing language and explicit interdependence between provisions.”
The prospect of judges peering over their computer terminals at the plaintiff may not be so distant.