At the time this article was
written Ian Waddell represented Port Moody-Coquitlam in the House of Commons
In April 1992 the author introduced
a Private Members' Bill in the House of Commons to promote the use of plain
language in federal statutes, statutory instruments and regulations. Like most
Private Members' Bills it is unlikely to be adopted but this article outlines
some of the reasons why such legislation is needed.
The introduction of my Plain
Language Bill aroused extraordinary interest from the media and amongst the
public. Right away the CBC radio program As It Happens invited me to
discuss the bill. The first question caught me off-guard as host Michael
Enright quoted back to me part of a complicated clause in my own bill. Indeed,
one paragraph of the Plain Language Acts reads:
"Subject to Section 10, every
person or entity authorized by an Act of Parliament to issue, make, or
establish statutory instruments or to make regulations shall refer a proposed
instrument or statutory or regulation which instrument or regulation is
required to be published pursuant to the Statutory Instruments Act, to
the Language Review Committee before it is made."
Next morning on Canada A.M.,
host Pamela Wallin put the same question. This time I simply pleaded guilty and
pointed out that I too was part of a system that has become all too complicated
and has forgotten how to use plain, simple English or French.
What do we mean by Plain Language?
Brian Garner, in The Elements of Legal Style, defines it as the
idiomatic and grammatical use of language that most effectively presents ideas
to the reader. More simply put, people say, make it "plain and
simple". They complain about legalese. David C. Elliot in his own very
imaginative Plain Language Act, under which he would even fine people
for using gobbledygook (hereinbefore costs $200.00!) says legal documents must
be written in as understandable language as the subject matter allows and be
designed in a way that helps readers understand the document.
Who can forget the scene from an
old Marx Brothers movie when Groucho and Chico literally hopped through a
contract, poking fun at the writing style known as `legalese':
It says, "the-uh-the first
part of the party of the first part, should be known in their contract as the
first part of the party in the first part, should be known in this contract –
look. Why should we quarrel about a thing like this? We'll take it right out,
They proceed to discard most of the
People can readily recognize what
plain language is not. In response to my Bill, I asked for and received input
from the public including examples of unplain language. One woman from Salmon
Arm, B.C. wrote and pointed out that the Lord's Prayer contains 56 words, the
Ten Commandments 297, the American Declaration of Independence 300, and a
Common Market Directive on the export of eggs, a whopping 26,911. She forgot,
however, to include the Canadian Income Tax Act. This was the most
common example sent in by supporters of my Bill.
I quoted in the House of Commons
from Section 119 of the Income Tax Act, Part 1, which deals with
`averaging' for farmers and fishermen. Try reading it without getting blue in
the face. It takes two pages of legalese to deal with the simple situation of a
farmer or a fisherman whose income may vary from year to year and, therefore,
as a matter of tax fairness, can average it for tax purposes over a four year
"Where an individual's chief
source of income has been farming or fishing for a taxation year (in this
section referred to as the `year of averaging') and the 4 immediately preceding
years for which he has filed returns of income as required by this Part (in
this section referred to as the `preceding years'), if the individual, on or
before the day on or before which he was required to file a return of his
income for the year of averaging, or on or before the day on or before which he
would have been required to file such a return if any tax had been payable by
him for the year of averaging, files with the Minister an election in
prescribed form, the tax payable under this Part for the year of averaging is
an amount determined by the following rules:"
a)ascertain the amount, if any,
remaining after deducting from the income for each year of the averaging period
(which in this section, means the year of averaging and the preceding years)
all deductions permitted for that year by Division C, except the deductions
permitted by section 109 or 110.4 or any amount in respect of a loss for the 3
years immediately following the year of averaging or any amount in respect of a
loss deducted under this paragraph from income for a preceding taxation year in
the averaging period;
This goes on for another page and
one-half and could only be read by a fisherman with a certified general accountant's
A letter writer from Mississauga,
Ontario pointed out that the 1984 General Tax Guide was a simple booklet but
the latest Guide, which they enclosed, was "one of the biggest and probably
costliest pieces of gobbledygook produced by the government. It weighs just
over half a pound and costs $1.90 for postage alone."
It is a principle of our system
that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. So it follows that if
people are to be responsible, they should be able to understand the law.
Legislators should be required to say what they mean and the public should be
able to clearly understand the full intent of government action without help
from a dozen lawyers.
Indeed we know that there are 4
million Canadians who have the skills to read materials only when they are
simply-worded and well laid out. Another 2.9 million Canadians have
difficulties no matter how simple and well laid out materials are. If we want
to foster respect for and knowledge of the law and our democratic institutions,
we have to make the workings of our government directly accessible to as many
people as possible. So, we have people who do not read and write well and we
have excellent readers who are, nevertheless, confronted by archaic and
convoluted language. In a society where information is power, our aim must be
to promote people's ability to be informed.
It is not surprising that in Canada
there is a growing movement for plain language. My own Province of British
Columbia has a Plain Language Institute funded by the Provincial
Attorney-General and the Law Foundation of B.C. There was a conference on plain
language held this year in Toronto. There is a private newsletter, Rapport
edited by Cheryl M. Stephens, which updates recent developments and reviews
books and articles. For example, Ms. Stephens asked the various officers of
legislative drafters whether they had a lexicon of English equivalents for
Latin phrases. She gives examples of phrases like per diem (daily or for
each day) and prima facie (apparent). There are centres in other parts
of the world. The Plain Language Centre of Australia offers seminars to
introduce plain language to lawyers (a good start) and is redrafting mortgage
documents for financial institutions.
The Yukon has enacted a plain
language law. Recently, the Province of B.C. did the same – the object is to
make laws easier to read and gender neutral and to begin the process of
Alberta has a law requiring financial
documents to be in plain forms in response to demands from investors. As well,
Alberta's Hansard of August 21, 1986, records the speech of a Mr.
Jonson: "Mr. Speaker, the purpose of Bill 204 is to put in place a review
procedure designed to endeavour to ensure that provincial legislation is as
understandable and direct as possible." (p. 1250) My own Bill follows that
In the Canadian House of Commons
any bill, including Government bills are tabled for first reading and printed.
Then they get second reading which is approval in principal. At this stage they
are referred to a Legislative Committee which calls witnesses and examines the
bill, clause by clause. At this stage my Plain Language Bill intervenes in the
process. A Committee called the Language Review Committee consisting of three
members from each political party represented in the House of Commons is
appointed by the Speaker of the House at the beginning of each session of
Parliament. The Speaker also appoints the Chair. Therefore, there is in place a
group of legislators ready to serve. When a bill passes second reading in the
House it is immediately referred to the Language Review Committee. Also, every
person or entity which is authorized by an Act of Parliament to make a statutory
instrument is required to refer the instrument to the Committee. The bill and
the statutory instrument thus get examined for plain language and
recommendations for changes in drafting are made before the bill passes
committee or before the statutory instrument is officially enacted. Note that
the politicians and not the officials are examining specifically the wording of
the bills and the mandate is simply plain language.
I do concede a huge exemption by
allowing the Government House Leader or the maker of the statutory instrument
to exempt them from the process. Frankly, this is a sweetener to get the
Government to agree to my Bill, which is, afterall, a new untried process in a
very conservative system. Besides, I am confident that after the people get used
to the process, the Government will find it has nothing to fear and will not
use the exemption.
Under the reformed rules of the
Canadian House of Commons which attempt to give more power to private members,
my Bill could become the law of Canada. To do that, of course, it would have to
win a mini-loto; that is, a draw to be chosen as a possible votable measure.
Even if drawn, I would have to convince a committee of MPs that it was
sufficiently important to be voted on.
I am not worried. There is nothing that
can in the end stop a good idea. I was in the Canadian House in 1979 when
Freedom of Information was being debated and it was clear that it was only a
matter of time before this initiative of MP Gerald Baldwin would eventually
The same is true for plain
language. Just this year the federal and provincial ministers of Consumer and
Corporate Affairs met and released a Statement on Plain Language to
promote plain language in consumer contracts on the basis that "businesses
providing clear information to consumers will be the ones to develop loyal and
satisfied customers, that business efficiency will increase, that plain
language makes it easier to train staff and reduces consumer complaints."
As well, I noted that a private Member, Ms. Catherine Callbeck on November 27,
1991 introduced an amendment to a financial bill requiring a company to use
plain language in all contracts relating to financial institutions. It did not
pass, but plain language got wide support in the House when Members debated her
Napoleon once said of the
Constitution he drafted that he wanted every peasant in every village in France
to be able to read the document and understand what it meant. A modern
democratic society demands the meaningful participation of individual citizens.
Citizens want government to be more open and more accountable. Plain language
will help to achieve these goals.
Clearly there is a growing movement
for reform. We will have to find ways of shifting attitudes or rewarding
government and private sector officials for being clearer. We will also get
better drafted and more comprehensive plain language bills, of which mine is
only a beginning. Plain language is an idea whose time has come.