Why is legislation so hard to read?


This is more of a philosophical question and I think it’s pretty simple.

Why is the legislation in this state (and the rest of the country I suppose) written in the manner it is? I’ve been trying to follow some bills lately (you can probably guess which ones) and between the legalese, structure and the fact that the bills are really a set of instructions on how to update existing laws, it makes it quite difficult for a layman to follow. I’m fairly used to parsing arcane scripts but it seems these bills are a whole different level of absurdity.

Given that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law, the unreadable nature of MGL and the bills intended to modify it seem to border on an issue of civil rights, and I only say that in a half joking manner.

I know there are some movements to move to plain English in contracts. How about plain English for legislation? If not that, how about bills that are published in a fully collapsed form so as to be a little more easy to comprehend?


3 replies on “Why is legislation so hard to read?”

  1. Great question. I think we could do a lot better in presenting legislation. As you say, it would be very helpful to show directly how legislation alters existing law in context. I would love to have all the statutory sections that are altered by bills I have to review presented in both red-line and clean formats, so I wouldn’t have to jump back and forth trying to parse things. It’s actually my plan to explore this for the committee I chair. There may be better change-tracking tools available from the software industry. A summer project — it would be much easier for legislators too.

  2. MS Word has this stuff built in. A software version control system (like Apache Subversion) would also do the job in terms of diffs and change tracking.

    I’d suggest that if the law can’t be flowcharted, it’s too complicated.

  3. Yup. It isn’t rocket science, but it is more complicated than MSWord versioning. We have to track a lot of simultaneously pending proposals for change to the text. Thinking of a GitHub type framework.

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