So, farewell then, Norman French

The Taoiseach yesterday launched the Statute Law Revision Bill, 2007 in a speech in the beautiful surroundings of St Werburgh’s Church, Dublin 8, described by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland as “a wonderful example of an early Georgian auditory church”. It was chosen by the Taoiseach for the announcement because, he said, it “is so closely connected with many of the historical events which led to … or arose from … the old laws we are now repealing”, though the fact that it made for a pretty photo-op can’t have hurt either.

There is much to be said in favour of this development, but the case must not be overstated. For the Taoiseach, there are political question-marks over statutes enacted prior to Independence in 1922; though, of course, there can be no legal question-marks: Art 73 of the Constitution of 1922 and Art 50 of the Constitution of 1937 provided that they continued in force. This Bill now specifically enumerates those pre-1922 statutes which will continue in force for the time being (1,350 or so), and repeals the rest (3,200 or so, many of the earlier ones making use of terminology bequeathed to the common law by its Norman French antecedents). The plan for the future is first progressively to repeal and re-enact modernised versions of the 1,350 retained statutes, and then to tidy up the post-1922 statute book, “to provide”, as the Taoiseach said yesterday, “for the Irish people a unified legislative code”. The wholesale codification of Irish Law has been a matter of public aspiration at least since the Law Reform Commission was set up in 1975, but this is the first time so far as I am aware that the Taoiseach has committed to it as a long term policy aim.

This is all part of a major ongoing government project which has taken in many developments across several departments. It is part of the Pre-Independence Project being undertaken by the Office of the Attorney General which has already produced the Statute Law Revision (Pre-1922) Act, 2005, which repealed more than 90 obsolete and redundant pre-1922 statutes. Again, in May 2006, the Government approved a request by the Attorney General that the Law Reform Commission carry out a programme of Statute Law Restatement pursuant to the Statute Law (Restatement) Act, 2002. The Commission’s parallel work on Land Law and Conveyancing has led to a comprehensive Bill which has been passed by the Seanad and is soon to come before the Dáil, while work is still ongoing relating to Landlord and Tenant Law, multi-unit develpments, and trusts. Meanwhile, part 14 of the Criminal Justice Act, 2006 provides a statutory basis for the appointment of a Criminal Law Codification Advisory Committee to oversee to long-awaited codification of the criminal law, and (two years after having received the November 2004 Report of the Expert Group on the Codification of the Criminal Law), in an address to a Criminal Law Conference on 25 November 2006, the Táiniste and Miniser for Justice announced that he had “decided to appoint Professor Finbarr McAuley, Jean Monnet Professor of European Criminal Justice, U.C.D. as Chairman of the Advisory Committee”; the names of the other members will be announced shortly.

So, the Taoiseach’s announcement yesterday is all of a piece with other aspects of government policy (shock, horror!). Morever, it is all to the good, as the modernisation of the Irish statute book will have benefits other than the political. It will confer upon the statute book greater coherence, certainty, accessibility, relevance and acceptability (though, as to accessibility, as Daithí points out, the Bill is unsurprisingly not available online yet). On the other hand, we must not have unreaslistic expectations about this process. It is a journalistic commonplace to print or broadcast a statutory provision for the purposes of ridiculing its inaccessible and often anachronistic jargon. But whilst plain language in statutory drafting is a good thing, and a comprehensive and comprehensible statutory code even better, there will still be many examples of the journalistic staple, the technical statutory provision. This is inescapable. But, that understood, it is difficult to disagree with the Taoiseach’s “simple view about legislation: people should know the laws which bind them, and that is simply not possible while so many ancient and obscure laws remain on our statute book”.

Links: press release | Irish Times | Irish Times