Simplifying the language of Singapore laws on track, as more people visit law website

Simplifying the language of Singapore laws on track, as more people visit law website

SINGAPORE: The ongoing simplification of the language of Singapore's laws is on track, with the next target within three years, even as the number of visitors to the Singapore Statutes Online website increased in the past three years.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) began its work to simplify existing laws in 2014, in response to the Plain Laws Understandable By Singaporeans (PLUS) survey of about 1,000 people by its Legislation Division.

The division, Singapore's central law drafting office, has been implementing the changes progressively with an aim to make the country's legislation more readable, the AGC told Channel NewsAsia.

In particular, attention is paid to the local use of English and the trend "that average Singaporeans get information through digital platforms more than print".

According to the AGC, there were 1.73 million unique visitors in 2015 to its Singapore Statutes Online website, which lays out the country's laws in detail.

This increased to 1.87 million in 2016 and 2 million in 2017. On average, about a fifth of these users are from outside Singapore.

The number of visits is even higher - growing from 4.3 million in 2015 to 4.8 million in 2016 and 5.1 million last year.

Some of the ways new laws are drafted take into consideration this digital audience. For example, legislative sentences in new Acts or subsidiary legislation are shorter than before.

Specifically, internal guidelines recommend that each sentence be kept within 45 words, which would fit on the screen of most mobile devices.

SHORTER SENTENCES, ARCHAIC WORDS DISCONTINUED

Long provisions and complex concepts are broken down into separate paragraphs, while simpler text is adopted in new laws where possible.

For example, archaic words like "hereby" and "heretobefore" have been discontinued from use, and the phrase "for the avoidance of doubt" has been replaced with "to avoid doubt". Roman numerals have also been replaced with Arabic numerals.

The lengthy section of the 1958 Public Order (Preservation) Act on carrying offensive weapons states: "Any person who in any public place in any proclaimed area carries or has in his possession or under his control any offensive weapon or any explosive, corrosive or inflammable substance shall, unless that person proves that he carried the weapon, article or substance or had it in his possession or under his control solely for some lawful purpose, be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and shall be liable to caning."

The simplified revision of this section, under the 2018 Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, reads: "41 (1) A person commits an offence if the person -

a. is carrying or has in the person’s possession or under the person’s control any offensive weapon, other than for a lawful purpose; and

b. is within the target area of a special authorisation.

(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under subsection (1) shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years and shall also be liable to caning."

Law drafters are encouraged to use online readability tests such as the Flesch Reading Ease Test (FRET) to determine how readable new laws are compared with older versions.

The AGC used FRET to compare the readability of the recent Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act 2018 against its predecessor, the Public Order (Preservation) Act, and found that the new act scored six times more on readability.

All Bills tabled in Parliament since 2015 have been accompanied by a more detailed Explanatory Statement, with illustrations or descriptions provided where appropriate on how the Bill's contents would affect existing law.

The Legislation Division has also produced a guide of about 600 pages to help law drafters find suitable words or phrases in plain English, in Singapore's context, to replace legalese, commercialese and complex phrases used in older laws.

To keep law drafters and editors abreast of the developments, drafting directives are regularly issued on the changes being implemented under the PLUS project.

The AGC is currently working on revising the current Acts of Parliament, more than 500 of them, and aims to complete this within the next three years.

"This timeline is, however, subject to the demands on law drafting services for Government’s legislative programmes or proposals during this period," said the AGC spokesman.

After this is completed, it will tackle the revision of more than 6,000 pieces of subsidiary legislation.

REACTION TO THE SIMPLIFICATION PROCESS

In general, the public "accepts that improving the readability of Singapore's written laws is an ongoing process", the AGC said. It has not received any negative feedback on the new laws drafted since embarking on the simplification endeavour.

National University of Singapore (NUS) law professor David Tan said the AGC "is doing a good job in the use of plain English when drafting some recent legislation", such as the Protection from Harassment Act 2015.

"In particular, the use of illustrative examples within the legislation is a helpful guide for both the public and the courts in the interpretation of certain sections," said Prof Tan.

NUS law faculty dean Simon Chesterman said Singapore's laws are, "for the most part, well-drafted and clear - though in some cases that clarity is most evident to lawyers and academics with legal training".

"Since laws are generally intended to promote order and stability, it is helpful if most people can read them without professional assistance," he said. "As an American judge once observed, the language of the law should not be foreign to the ears of those expected to obey it."

He pointed out that the wider move to plain English dates back to the 1970s, and has gained traction in many common law jurisdictions including the United States and Australia.

In the United Kingdom, an effort to rewrite the tax code in plain English began in 1996, and a progress report in 2009 estimated that it was saving around £70 million (S$126 million) annually in administrative costs, said Prof Chesterman.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan echoed his counterparts' views that Singapore's laws are "generally drafted well - clear, concise and easy to understand".

However, there is still room to improve, he said. 

"The audience is not so much the lawyer but the average person who needs to know the law including the authorities that have to enforce the law, the ordinary citizens whose rights and responsibilities are affected by the law," said Associate Professor Tan.

"Poorly drafted or hard to understand laws create uncertainty, confusion, misunderstanding - in sum, generating inefficiencies through increasing transaction costs of doing business," he said.

Even so, Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that there "are limits to the plain language drafting of legislation in practice". 

"Overall, the plain language method of drafting is to be welcomed even as we keep in mind that it is not sufficient to remove every doubt as to legislative meaning of a particular law," he said.

Laws are not good if people find it hard to understand them, Assoc Prof Tan said. 

"The law must work for the people, not people work for the law," he added. "Laws which are clear also help to reduce the need for litigation to resolve what is the meaning of a term, a clause, a provision in any piece of legislation."

Source: CNA/ll(cy)

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