In 1983, the United Kingdom’s parliament consolidated the Medical Acts 1956 to 1978 and certain related provisions with amendments. The result was the Medical Act 1983 which was “enacted by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and, Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same.” Thankfully though, the latter is the only 12th century gibberish that is contained in the Act.
On the other hand, a law that would have come into effect last Thursday morning is written in a style that Britain – Botswana’s former colonial master – has long dispensed with. Given why people have been ordered to stay home and farther apart from each other, one would have expected the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020 and the Income Tax (COVID-19) (Deferment of Self-Assessment Tax) Order 2020 to be written in a reader-friendly manner but that is not the case. In a country whose educational standards have been steadily declining over the years, it is certainly not a good idea to write unusually long sentences that tax the reader’s mind to the other side of the limit but that is what both pieces of legislation do.
There is a reason sentences in today’s style of writing are short but Section 2 of the Regulations has a single sentence that is almost two pages long, is riddled with Medieval language, and wordy phrases and also contains lots and lots references and cross-references. When a reader gets to the middle of the sentence, they would definitely have forgotten what they have already read. Little wonder then that Tonota MP, Pono Moatlhodi appealed to the relevant ministers to go on radio Botswana and explain the new laws section by section.Most sentences in UK’s Medical Act are kept short and are easily understandable. While some are long, there appears to be word limit beyond which meaning in a sentence would be impenetrable.
It would seem that the style sheet used in the House of Commons also limits the number of references and cross-references that can be made in a piece of legislation.The irony of it all is that once more, Botswana feels the need to retain a Medieval tradition whose custodians have ditched for something more modern and practical. Even in the height of summer, the Speaker of Botswana’s National Assembly shows up in the chamber wearing a robe and horse-hair wig. In the House of Commons, the Speaker wears no more than a business suit and tie. Botswana also retains laws that Britain has abolished.
In 2009, the country banned the 500-year old seditious libel law following a motion tabled by an opposition MP. In 2014, under former President Ian Khama, Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, was charged with that same law as the beginning of a long-running, multi-pronged campaign to make his life hell as punishment for what his paper published. While the charges were withdrawn under President Mokgweetsi Masisi, seditious libel is still law in Botswana.While MPs have clamoured for an overhaul of the 1966 constitution to align it to today’s Botswana, none has advocated for adopting a reader-friendly writing style for the nation’s laws.
When he was president, Khama frowned upon the Roman-Dutch principle (which Botswana has adopted) that “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” Botswana laws are based on a foreign culture (British) and even Batswana who are unfamiliar with this culture are expected to obey these laws.