Plain English and the Law: the 1987 Report Republished (html)


General conclusions

1 The Commission’s examination and analysis of recent legislation and of other legal documents has revealed that they suffer from a number of linguistic defects. They also suffer from excessive sentence length, the creation and use of unnecessary concepts, poor organisation of material and unattractive layout.

2 These defects are not required by policy or by existing law. They are solely matters of drafting. They make many legal documents much less intelligible to their audiences than they should be. Even judges and experienced lawyers have difficulty with them. They are regularly unintelligible to non-lawyers, even when they are experts in the relevant fields.

3 The clarity of legal documents would be considerably improved if drafters got rid of these defects and adopted a plain English style in place of the present one. Plain English is not a special language. It is ordinary English, expressed directly and clearly to convey a message simply and effectively. It does not require the abandonment of technical terms or strict legal concepts.

4 It is not possible to draft laws and other legal documents on technical and complex matters in a way to make them intelligible to the average citizen. The average citizen lacks the necessary knowledge of the subject matter, but it is possible to draft them in a way to make them intelligible to a much wider audience.

5 Redrafts of the Companies (Acquisition of Shares) (Victoria) Code and of other legal documents form appendixes to the Report. They demonstrate that legal documents, even those dealing with a complex subject, can be written in plain English without loss of precision or accuracy.

6 Legislative requirements for a purposive approach to be adopted in interpreting legislation are important to the success of a plain English style. Lawyers will have to develop a less technical approach to language.

Why is plain English important?

7 Plain English in legislation is important because it helps members of the public to comply with their legal obligations and to obtain benefits to which they are entitled. Laws and documents should not be drafted on the assumption that a trained lawyer will be available to interpret them.

8 Plain English in legislation is also important because it saves money. Poorly drafted laws impose costs on those who administer them and on those whose conduct they are intended to control. Time is wasted in trying to understand them. Lawyers have to be employed to interpret them.

9 Poorly drafted private documents impose similar costs on the persons affected by them. Poorly drafted government forms also waste money. They produce inaccurate and incomplete responses. Substantial administrative costs have to be incurred in correcting the information.