Readable Laws

There’s a U.S. wiki called Readable Laws that attempts to make American legislation come closer to plain speech than it does when leaving Congress. Because it’s an open wiki, this is a collaborative effort among those interested enough to join — which will make legal specialists shudder, no doubt.

Let me give you something of the flavour of the work being done. Here’s a passage from the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 (which seems sort of appropriate), a bill that has passed the House:

§2 (c) Limitations on Content of Information- The content of any testimony or document that is compelled under subsection (a) shall–

(1) not be overbroad, unreasonable, or oppressive and, as appropriate, be limited to the purpose of verifying published information or describing any surrounding circumstances relevant to the accuracy of such published information; and
(2) be narrowly tailored in subject matter and period of time covered so as to avoid compelling production of peripheral, nonessential, or speculative information.

And here’s the current “readable” version:

If a journalist is court-ordered to divulge source materials, he or she must only divulge details that answer the court’s question. They do not have to release entire documents that divulge other impertinent details.

This sort of sampling is unfair, of course, because you need to read the whole act to place an excerpt in context — which is one of the problems of “translating” a statute bit by bit, I should think.

Still, any effort to improve drafting is to be welcomed.


  1. The role of professional drafters is considerably less in the US than in all Canadian jurisdictions. I would argue that Canadian legislation is generally in plain language. Lack of plainness may come from insufficient time for consideration or deliberate policy choices (not made by the drafters) to leave some questions open. And of course not all ideas in legislation are simple.

    The so called plain-language version of the US statute cited by Simon does not say the same thing as the legislative text. It has new ideas in it – perhaps taken from the context, as Simon notes. But describing the policy of a statute is a much different process than drafting precisely targeted rules.

    I don’t defend the legislative language here, just submit that the plain language version is not an accurate representation of it.

    A piecemeal, wiki-generated revision will be subject to stylistic inconsistencies as found here too: do you use “he or she” and “they” as pronouns for the same antecedent in subsequent sentences? I would have thought one or the other. (Ontario uses “themself” as a reflexive, but “he or she” rather than “they” for a singular antecedent. There are ways to avoid having to make the choice in many cases.)

  2. This wiki is a laudable attempt indeed. Laws are often looked down upon by the common man as a technical subject which require superior reading skills and often paid-assistance. It surely is a lot useful for those people want to keep themselves aware of the law but are kept away for the simple fact of hyper-technical language.
    It may be a different issue altogether, however, when this simplistic understand of laws begins to affect their behaviour and actions. Like for example, if the people take this simply cast translation in plain language as the final word on law, they might miss the finer details and make invoke the darker side of law against them.
    So surely it is a good exercise, but to be treaded with caution, lest making people suffer because of this too simplistic outlook.