Ploughing legal snowdrifts to make snowballs roll

Meredith Thatcher | December 1, 2016

Sissel Motzfeldt and Ragnhild Samuelsberg are ‘two unorthodox bureaucrats’ on ‘a mission to fight the fog’ of legalese in Norway. At Clarity2016, they presented a funny and memorable session on ploughing the legal snowdrift in the Norwegian law-making process. As they explain:

Norwegian citizens have too long tacitly accepted legalese — a language that prevents understanding and participation. In our experience, the process of changing the language in laws can be compared to the long winters in Norway. The process is hard, snowy and slippery, but also fun and filled with speed and excitement. In short, as is said in Norway, ‘we have made snowballs roll’.


What snowballs did they need to move?

When Sissel and Ragnhild started their Clear Law Project, a number of snowballs blocked their path. These included:

How did they make the snowballs roll?

Sissel and Ragnhild needed a strategy. First they needed to change the mindset of the lawyers. So they held a series of ‘clarity workshops’ at which attendees raised the troublesome issue of legal precision versus clarity. Can you discard or rewrite pieces of law without losing the legal meaning?

The next step was to look at the law-making process. The presenters knew they needed ‘power behind the words’. This meant getting the politicians on board with the project. The process had four steps.

1. Build the case for change

Use surveys, reports, figures, and tables to build a base of data. For example, they gathered feedback about Norway’s Civil Code.

2. Build awareness

Use seminars, conferences, courses, workshops, and meetings with management and other people in power to build awareness of plain language and how to use it in updating laws.

3. Develop model laws

Take a current law that’s badly written. Edit it into a law to use as a model for other laws. User-test the current and edited law. Do a language analysis of the law.

4. Change the educational system

Take a whole-of-system approach by getting academics in business schools and law schools onboard. Students can then learn how to write clearly from the start as they learn the process of drafting legislation.

How do you make the law speak for everyone?

Ask the question: How does the law speak to me? Then consider these aspects as you write your legal text.

For example, Sissel and Raghild decided that children needed to understand laws that affected them. So the Adoption Act was rewritten using language that a child could understand. This rewrite includes brief explanations of legal terms after they first appear.

How will they keep the snowballs rolling?

Sissel and Ragnhild already see positive changes. These include:

Now the Clear Law Project is a solid base to get all parts of the legal system working towards plain language. And to keep that effort going.

As Sissel and Ragnhild unrolled the project, sometimes they hit a snowdrift. But they’ve ploughed through. In the end, it’s all about persistency, persuasion, and transformation.

About the snowball rollers

Sissel C Motzfeldt is a senior adviser at the Agency for Public Management and eGovernment. Sissel manages the ‘Clear language in laws and regulations’ project. She previously managed the Plain Language project in Norway’s civil service. Her experience in central government includes communication advisor, communication manager, and strategy developer. Her other skills include lecturer, consultant, and project manager.

Image, Sissel Motzfeldt.

Ragnhild I Samuelsberg is a specialist director in the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality, where she’s building a plain language culture. Ragnhild has extensive experience as a professional communicator and lecturer outside government, and has been an anchor for a TV programme, an editor, and a journalist.

Image, Ragnhild Samuelsberg.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.