New Zealand Law Society - Very influential law-making role

Very influential law-making role

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George Tanner QC has had a "very influential role in New Zealand’s law making" Attorney-General Michael Cullen said on 25 June 2007 in farewelling him as chief parliamentary counsel.

George Tanner joined the Parliamentary Counsel Office in 1981 and took over from Walter Iles as chief parliamentary counsel nearly 11 years ago, in 1996.

"I want to pay particular tribute to George for the contribution he has made to the clarity, structure and format of our statute book," Michael Cullen said.

"He has worked hard to make legislation accessible, in its widest sense, and has been a great champion of the ‘Public Access to Legislation Project’.

"His work and encouragement has led to the development of the PCO Drafting Manual, and a review of PCO drafting by an international expert in clear drafting.

"George doesn’t accept that legislation should be intelligible to a select few – the wider public reads legislation too. To quote from George himself, 'If an unpleasant message has to be communicated, and not all legislative messages are pleasant ones, the message ought not to be hidden in a mass of words.'

"This is not just a matter of convenience and style. Clarity in our legislation is an important issue of democracy, for two reasons.

"First, democracy requires that people should be able to understand the laws that govern them. If you cannot reasonably understand the laws, you cannot comply with them, and therefore the application of law to your actions will be random or arbitrary. A state in which people cannot plainly understand the laws might as well be a lawless state.

"And second, plainly formulated laws are vital for democracy because elected representatives of the people, not the judiciary, should have the primary responsibility for making the policy of the law. When laws are badly drafted, decisions are kicked to judges. Judges attempt to determine and give effect to the intention of the House, but if we want laws that reflect the democratic will of the people then the House should express them clearly in the first place.

"So clear expression of our statutes is a basic democratic requirement. And drafters are therefore guardians of our democracy.

"George has played his part as a guardian of our democracy with changes made at the end of the nineties to layout, to drafting style and to PCO powers (which allowed it to make editorial changes in reprints.)

"These days we use ordinary language. Our laws don’t use archaic language like 'hereby' and 'notwithstanding'. Statutes say 'must' instead of 'shall'. They use ordinary arabic numbering instead of roman numerals. They use the active voice instead of ‘the voice that is used being passive.’ And statutes use English expressions instead of Latin.

"I welcome these changes and George Tanner’s midwifery of them into our statute books.

"George made strong contributions to the Legislation Advisory Committee, and to the as-yet-incomplete Law Commission/PCO project on indexing and other ways of enhancing the accessibility of legislation.

"This is a legacy, but the sheer weight of legislation he has drafted is a legacy in itself. He drafted a huge swathe of the commercial legislation currently in use – companies, fair trade, banking, competition, insurance – plus umpteen Securities Act exemption notices. He continued to draft Securities Act Exemption Notices after he had to give away all his other drafting work when he became chief parliamentary counsel.

"George’s work in the field is generally regarded as jewels of fine drafting and he gave superb service to the Securities Commission," the Attorney-General said.

 "This has been a fine career.

"George’s academic and general legal writings on the legislative process, interpretation, and the overall role of legislation in the law have been influential and thought provoking. The PCO has become more outward looking under George’s leadership. He has encouraged co-operation with Pacific nations and has formed close relations with drafting offices in Australia and the UK."

This article was first published in LawTalk 691, 16 July 2007.

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