Wednesday, 30 July 2014

AGC to simplify language used in Singapore's laws

By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 29 Jul 2014

THE Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) is simplifying the language and presentation of Singapore's statutes, amid calls to use plain English in public documents. Instead of "shall", "must" will be used to highlight obligations, for instance.

Each provision will be concisely put in six lines or less "as far as practicable", and complex sentences with multiple parts will be broken down.

To eliminate gender bias in the law, terms such as "the person" will be used in place of "he" or "she" whenever applicable, an AGC spokesman told The Straits Times.

The tweaks to existing laws, which include almost 6,000 Acts of Parliament and pieces of subsidiary legislation, will be made under the Revised Edition of the Laws Act. This permits changes to the language and presentation of the statutes without affecting the meanings of the laws. The last time such a revision was done was in 1985.

New laws to be published on the Subsidiary Legislation Government Gazette from next month will contain these features.

They can already be seen in several recently introduced laws, such as the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act, which was passed in February, and the Transboundary Haze Bill tabled in Parliament earlier this month.

The changes are spearheaded by the AGC's Legislation and Law Reform Division (LLRD), which conducted a month-long online public survey last year to gather feedback on plausible changes. It received 1,058 responses - 70 per cent from people who are not legally trained.

Chief Legislative Counsel Owi Beng Ki, who heads the LLRD, told The Straits Times: "Singapore laws are being read and used increasingly by laymen."

Last year, the Singapore Statutes website was accessed about three million times - treble the figure for the whole of 2012.

Between July 25 last year and the same date this year, nearly 1.4 million unique visitors went to the site.

About 40 per cent of them were first-time visitors.

"It is vital to ensure that the Singapore laws that the LLRD drafts to give effect to government policies and the legislature's intent are, and remain, understandable to Singaporeans," Mrs Owi said.

"Difficulty in the understanding and use of legislation has consequences like increased litigation and lower productivity in the economy."

Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote on Facebook that the Government should be "simple and direct when we communicate with the public".

He called for simple language to be used, regardless of the occasion, instead of "management speak or big words which will not impress anyone".

The Straits Times has reported that organisations such as OCBC Bank, DBS Bank, NTUC Income and the Central Provident Fund Board have started moving towards using plain English in public documents.

The AGC does not have a targeted completion date for its current revision of existing laws.

The spokesman said: "Priority has still to be given to drafting new laws to give effect to policy solutions to current problems."

Director of Stamford Law Corp and book author Adrian Tan said: "This is a timely move. The law is for everyone, not just academics and legal professionals. This initiative will improve access to justice."

Added the steering committee member of the Speak Good English Movement: "I am glad the Attorney-General has taken the lead. Making things simple is difficult."

Some guidelines to be adopted

EXAMPLES of guidelines the Attorney-General's Chambers will adopt in new statutes, and in revising old ones:
- Use of "must" instead of "shall" to signify obligations
- Use of "however" or "despite" instead of "notwithstanding" wherever applicable
- Use of "under" instead of "pursuant to" wherever applicable
- Use of "this person" instead of "he" or "she" wherever applicable
- Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3...) will replace Roman numerals (I, II, III...)
- Dates will be written without ordinal indicators alongside the numerals. For example, instead of 29th July, dates will be reflected as 29 July
- Each legislative provision will, as far as practicable, not exceed six lines, while complex sentences with multiple parts will be broken down

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