Monday, May 01, 2006

Complete Amendments

When a law is passed, it's effects endure until specific action is taken to negate it's effects. This continuation occurs regardless of whether the concerns that brought about the law are still relevant, whether changes in society render the law harmful or unneeded, if the law is having the desired effect, if the law has unexpected consequences that are unwanted and other concerns.

When a law does need to be changed, it is usually done so as an amendment to existing law, and then only listing the changes that are being made, what is known in computer circles as a diff. For example is the following from the USA-PATRIOT Act, section 201:


Section 2516(1) of title 18, United States Code, is amended--

(1) by redesignating paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 434(2) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-132; 110 Stat. 1274), as paragraph (r); and

(2) by inserting after paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 201(3) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (division C of Public Law 104-208; 110 Stat. 3009-565), the following new paragraph:

`(q) any criminal violation of section 229 (relating to chemical weapons); or sections 2332, 2332a, 2332b, 2332d, 2339A, or 2339B of this title (relating to terrorism); or'.

Changes like this make it very difficult to work out what the effects of the amendments will be without having to compare and contrast great portions of legislation. Indeed the section quoted changes something that was previously changed by another bill.

In most countries ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. However, when learning exactly what is the law requires extraordinary time and effort, eventually everyone will slip up somewhere. In Australia, there is no fair use clause in copyright law, and so numerous devices such as VCRs and iPods technically are not allowed to be used, which means a large part of the population have violated the law, though few would consider that they weren't allowed to use such devices. The law should be such that everyone can understand and find the whole of the law. Tax law is another example, with many loopholes, exceptions and variations.

So, in response to the onslaught of amendments that don't make clear there purpose and require the checking of many other documents to find their full effect, I propose the following. That when an amendment to a law is made, the bill state the previous version that is repealed, and then state the new version in its entirety. Notations showing where changes have been made should be included throughout the text of the law bill, and a complete list of changes for those who like the old format could be included as an appendix.

One consequence of this is that a bill could change one and only one already existing act. This would be particularly important when some wishes to make wide ranging changes to a number of laws, forcing a separate vote and debate on the changes in each area.

It will also make it easier to see the history of a law, as any bill that changes an existing states what it is replacing.

This should not have a major effect on the way amendments are developed, and laws would still be changed as needed, but the new laws will be much clearer and thus easier to understand, debate and consider.

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