June 17, 2006
Plain English can find a place in legislation
Sir, The Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman seems to have forgotten that legislation is complex because human activity, which it seeks to regulate, is also complex, and as a result law is a specialist subject, just as with architecture or medicine. The only way that a paper on new heart transplant techniques could be rendered intelligible would be if the reader had studied the subject — and was hence no longer a member of “the public” — or if the paper were simplified to the point where it was more or less completely unhelpful to a surgeon.
The example you give of an apparently plain English provision bears this out. You report that the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 states: “It is an offence to cause a riot.”
Perfectly plain, until someone is charged under the section and it has to be determined what “caused” and “riot” mean in context.