Simplifying legal terms could raise quality of debate

 Simplifying legal terms could raise quality of debate

As a layman when it comes to law, I welcome the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) move to simplify the language and presentation of 6,000 of Singapore's statutes.

It seeks to make it easier for laymen to understand the laws, and thereby improve access to justice.

The tweaks were based on a survey of 1,058 laymen and law practitioners. I was not one of them, but would gladly throw in my lot with the majority who preferred to replace the word "notwithstanding" with "however" or "despite".

First, this simplifying of language is a good move in itself. Better English is a noble aim everywhere, but it is even more important in law where the clarity of language is key.

Some phrases currently in laws are plainly archaic.

But second, and possibly even more importantly, this is a good move because more people who do not practise law are reading laws. The AGC said that the Singapore Statutes website was accessed about three million times last year, thrice as much as the year before. In the past year, nearly 1.4 million unique visitors went to the site, about 40 per cent for the first time.

This spike in public interest in legal discourse can be seen in the context of several high-profile court cases. Recent cases include alleged hacker James Raj Arokiasamy asking the courts to declare that his not being allowed to see his lawyer after his arrest was unconstitutional.

Last year, the Supreme Court also ruled on whether the Prime Minister had unfettered discretion to call an election to fill a vacant Parliament seat, following a case brought by a Hougang resident after her MP resigned.

It is the right move to whet citizens' appetite for information, and their willingness to examine primary sources of information themselves instead of relying solely on what others tell them.

One vital part of democracy, after all, is an informed citizenry made up of members who understand their rights and responsibilities, and who can be informed participants in debates on issues of national importance.

But making laws easier to access is only half the battle won. It's what people do with this access that counts.

Just because people will have an easier time reading laws does not mean they will interpret them correctly.

This is why there will always be room for law experts, especially public intellectuals, to offer credible explanations of how the law is applied.

Earlier this year, at a discussion organised by human rights group Maruah on a public order law proposed in the wake of the Little India riot, adjunct law professor Kevin Tan - a constitutional law expert - insightfully critiqued the proposed Bill.

He said that the Bill would not contravene citizens' constitutional right to movement or assembly, which there had been some confusion about, as it was explicitly about keeping public order.

Instead, his critique hinged on the discretion the Bill gave law enforcement officers. While not unfettered, it could be hard in practice to disprove that officers had not acted on a "reasonable suspicion", argued Prof Tan.

More of such input from experts will be needed as laymen read up more on laws.

Final judgment on the effect of simplifying the laws should be reserved for now.

There are other considerations to keep in mind, such as taking care that the substance of laws is not actually changed without oversight. But the move has potential to raise the quality of public debate in Singapore, and for that it should be applauded.

charyong@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 03, 2014.
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