Should Non-Lawyers Be Able To Understand Laws?

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Queen of the geek scene Emma Mulqueeny has recently been asked to sit on Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy.

They're currently soliciting for comments on the question:

The system of laws and law-making in the UK is complex, but is that inevitable given the highly developed and interconnected society which laws regulate? Should you need to be a lawyer to understand and use an Act?

You can leave your comment on their forum - here's what I submitted.

Albert Einstein said:

[T]he supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

Or, as it is more commonly paraphrased "make things as simple as possible - but no simpler."

The law applies to every person - we should not have to become experts in how to be governed.

Let's take, for example, the Sale of Goods Act (1979). It is one of the most important pieces of consumer legislation yet is almost completely unintelligible to the lay reader. The state has published hundreds of different pamphlets, guides, posters, books, and websites trying to explain it. Not to mention all the work independent consumer organisations have done in trying to make the legislation legible.

I present a random extract from the act. Before trying to understand it, I'd appreciate it if you were to try to read it aloud on a single breath of air.

Where there is a contract for the sale of specific goods or where goods are subsequently appropriated to the contract, the seller may, by the terms of the contract or appropriation, reserve the right of disposal of the goods until certain conditions are fulfilled; and in such a case, notwithstanding the delivery of the goods to the buyer, or to a carrier or other bailee or custodier for the purpose of transmission to the buyer, the property in the goods does not pass to the buyer until the conditions imposed by the seller are fulfilled.

I've read this several times, and I *think* it means that "If you buy something, it doesn't become your property until you've fulfilled all the parts of the seller's contract. If you don't meet those conditions, the seller doesn't have to give you the goods." Am I close?

The law doesn't need to be in iambic pentameter - but it does need to be readable and understandable to those to whom it is targeted.

This may mean, in future, that an Act isn't written in paragraphs but drawn out as a flow chart or as UML diagram.

Ambiguity only enriches lawyers. Any adult with a GCSE in English should be able to parse a law and understand its impact. To often legal disputes seem to arise not from a willing breach of the law - but by misunderstandings.

I work on user-interfaces for software. If a user doesn't understand that how she has to fill in a form - I have failed. I would suggest that any law which requires a professional to assist with its understanding has also failed.

My suggestion is that all proposed bills undergo a period of UAT (User Acceptance Testing). This UAT would ask members of the public to try and interpret what a law does - and whether it meets those goals.

This can be done online - for example a quiz showing a paragraph of a bill, and then a multiple choice question to see if it has been understood.

3 thoughts on “Should Non-Lawyers Be Able To Understand Laws?

  1. says:

    It's an interesting debate, because the reason the law is so complex in its language is they try and make it watertight in meaning. And we still get lots of legal argument about meanings. Making it simpler language may actually have the impact of meaning you get MORE lawyers (or lawyer types) who win on their ability to turn the simple language one way or the other. I totally agree that you need the laws to have a simple translation, but sometimes you need the words to have more limited definition

    Also, on your explanation of sale of goods act, you missed the bit that goes that even of the seller has given you the goods - or the post office or courier has it - it's still not yours until you have paid for it, or done what you said you do. So if you have not completed the hulu-hoop dance of awesomeness with the hula-hoop the seller gave you on that condition, the hula-hoop is still owned by the seller. In this case, possession is not none-tenths of the law 🙂

    1. I agree - but I think there must be a middle ground. Even if it's just better structuring of the sentences! You're right, I completely missed the part about delivery of the goods - easily done when there's a wall of polysyllabic text 🙂

  2. Unfortunately, the law is massively self referential - and there is an awful lot of it. All too often to understand one thing you have to understand another - there are laudable efforts towards consolidation and clearer drafting, but it's a long haul. John Sheridan's project trying to apply design patterns to legislation could well be useful here - it's to be hoped that there will be more public information on this soon. I made a few remarks on the causes of complexity as part of the Guardian's good law discussion.

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