Explained | New Zealand’s Plain Language Bill

The Act aims to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of the public service by requiring communications to be clear and accessible to the public”. 

October 25, 2022 04:45 pm | Updated October 26, 2022 08:07 am IST

New Zealand MP Rachel Boyack with her Plain Language Bill.

New Zealand MP Rachel Boyack with her Plain Language Bill. | Photo Credit: Twitter/MarjaLubeck

The story so far: New Zealand passed the Plain Language Act on Wednesday, which will require the country’s officials to use simple, easily understood English language in official documents and on websites.

The final debate and vote on the Bill took place on October 19, 2022, when the Bill was passed. It received royal assent on October 21, 2022.

What is the Plain Language Bill?

The Labour Party’s Rachel Boyack, member of New Zealand’s Parliament from Nelson, introduced the Plain Language Bill in the Assembly last year, with the aim to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of the public service by requiring communications to be clear and accessible to the public”.

Accessibility and inclusivity are the primary motivation behind the Bill.

What constitutes “plain language”?

According to the Bill, plain language is language the intended audience can understand after reading it once. It is “clear, concise, and well-organised".

The Bill does not specify which language “plain language” refers to specifically, but the explanatory note in the Bill says that it is intended to promote the use of “plain English”. Legislators think limiting the application of the Bill to English is a good idea. At the same time, the Bill also noted that it will not restrict public service agencies from using Māori language, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand, in their documents.

Requirements

The Plain Language Bill listed the following requirements under the Act:

  • Using plain language in documents
  • Appointing plain language officers
  • Forming a reporting framework for to gauge if and how agencies are complying with the requirements of the Bill
  • Provision of plain language guidance by the Public Service Commissioner

Implementation and challenges

Under the Plain Language Act, a public service agency must annually report its compliance with the plain language use requirement to the Commissioner.

The Commissioner, in turn, must annually report the compliance of agencies to the Minister of Public Service. An earlier draft also instructed the Commissioner to submit recommendations on plain language guidance and best practices, but this clause was later deleted.

The Act further instructs the Minister of Public Service to present a copy of the report to the House of Representatives within 20 business days of receiving it.

Although the Act is legally binding once it receives royal assent, the Plain Language Act does not confer a legal right or impose a legal obligation that is enforceable in a court of law, on any person.

Views

During one of the debates on the Bill, MP Boyack said, “New Zealand is at its best when we can all understand and easily participate in our democracy...when government agencies are explaining services, benefits, or how to comply with requirements, they should use plain language and avoid jargon.”

The National Party of New Zealand, the main opposition party in the House of Representatives, argued that appointing “plain language officers” will increase bureaucracy in the country and waste the taxpayers’ money.

 

Accessibility and digital inclusion activist Neil Milliken expressed his views in favour of the Bill, calling it an “important step forward”.

  • New Zealand passed the Plain Language Act on Wednesday, which will require the country’s officials to use simple, easily understood English language in official documents and on websites
  • The Labour Party’s Rachel Boyack, a member of New Zealand’s Parliament from Nelson, introduced the Plain Language Bill in the Assembly last year, with the aim to “improve the effectiveness and accountability of the public service by requiring communications to be clear and accessible to the public”
  • Although the Act is legally binding once it receives royal assent, the Plain Language Act does not confer a legal right or impose a legal obligation that is enforceable in a court of law, on any person

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