Laws for the layman

Is the public aware of laws' existence, and if it is, does it understand how they affect the individual in terms of rights and duties?

Law book gavel 311 (photo credit: AP)
Law book gavel 311
(photo credit: AP)
Not all the laws passed by the Knesset that involve action by the government are actually implemented.
Given that the government does not implement many of its own decisions, this is hardly surprising. In fact, the government has many ways of avoiding the implementation of laws – mostly originating from private members’ bills – it does not favor. One of them is not to issue the regulations required. Another is to use the Economic Arrangements Law to delay implementation of a law already passed or to ensure that it turns into a dead letter.
The Knesset legal department is currently planning to establish a unit whose task will be to follow up the implementation of laws in a systematic manner.
But what about the laws that are implemented – is the public aware of their existence, and if it is, does it understand how they affect the individual in terms of rights and duties?
It is this important issue that a bill recently submitted by MK Ilan Gillon (Meretz), and which appeared on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation last Sunday, tries to address. Yedid, a nonprofit association established 14 years ago to empower citizens from underprivileged and marginalized communities, and which provides free legal services to needy citizens, helped in drafting the bill. The bill proposes to establish a body that will increase public awareness of the existence of laws that concern it directly, ensure that these laws are accessible and that their provisions are understood.
In fact, at least in terms of making laws accessible and providing the background to each of them, the Knesset is taking steps to improve the current situation.
IN MANY more-developed democracies, the whole law book is available free online.
Here one can find all the laws online, but only on commercial websites. On the Knesset website, one can find the texts of the laws and amendments passed since mid- 1999. However, this is not very helpful to the layman. The legal adviser to the Knesset has initiated discussions on the possibility of placing the whole law book on the Knesset website. This is not as simple as it might sound, both for technical reasons and due to the vested interests of the commercial bodies responsible for the publication of laws since the establishment of the state.
But this is not the only action being taken by the Knesset. There are quite a few legislatures, including Congress in the US and Parliament in the UK, on whose websites one can view the whole history of bills submitted, until they turn (or fail to turn) into law. The Knesset, together with the Justice Ministry and the cabinet secretary, is working on a project that will provide the same service.
One question that is still open is how much explanation will be provided regarding the content of the bills and laws, beyond the words of explanation that appear at the end of every bill.
The problem is that while the Knesset, and in the case of government legislation also the legal departments of the ministries, is responsible for drafting the laws, and ensuring that they say exactly what is intended, it is the job of the courts to determine their interpretation.
Therefore, it is not the job of the authorities to be involved in any interpretation of the law, unless they are asked to express their opinion by the courts. So, while each authority (for example the National Security Institute) can provide information on the rights of citizens under the laws and regulations, it cannot offer legal advice beyond that.
The bill proposed by Gillon does not go into detail regarding who should run the proposed center, or the exact services it should provide. The government might object to doing this job itself on principle, or for financial reasons. The alternative would be to provide financial and logistic assistance to bodies like Yedid to do it.
Another suggestion that is frequently heard (but is not mentioned in the current bill) is that translations of laws into simple language should be made available. The problem here is that, as in the case of translating the Bible into simple language, this frequently involves a specific interpretation, which might not correspond to the original intention. “Legalese” is not there to make sure people don’t understand what a law says; it developed for a reason, and while part of the art of drafting legislation is to ensure that the language is as clear as possible, there are limits.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.