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Legislative Services Offices and the Roles of Legislative Counsel

John Mark Keyes

Chief Legislative Counsel

Legislative Services Branch,

Department of Justice (Canada)

October 25, 2008


This paper is intended to prompt thinking about legislative counsel and the institutional arrangements within which they provide legislative services. It looks at the functions of offices that provide these services and the roles of those who work in them with particular reference to the Legislative Services Branch of the Department of Justice (Canada).

The drafting of legislative texts is the basic function of legislative counsel. They are often referred to as “drafters” who work in “drafting offices”. However, their roles typically go well beyond the preparation of legislative texts and embrace associated tasks extending from legal advice to the publication of laws. The terms “legislative counsel” and “legislative services office” more aptly convey the range of these functions.

In the mid-1970s, the Renton Committee in the United Kingdom looked at how drafting services were provided.[1] Its mandate was

With a view to achieving greater simplicity and clarity in statute law, to review the form in which Public Bills are drafted, excluding consideration of matters relating to policy formulation and the legislative programme.

The Committee produced a lengthy series of recommendations, many of which related to the organization and maintenance of a drafting office. The Committee recommended retaining the model of centralized drafting[2] as well as measures for ensuring its ability to provide high quality drafting services.[3]

This paper considers similar questions, which include both the range of functions that legislative services offices can provide, as well as the merits of such an institutional approach to legislative drafting. It begins with a brief history of legislative drafting and continues with a general discussion of centralized drafting and the role of a drafting office. This role includes such things as setting drafting standards, policies and procedures, publishing and revising legislative texts and recruiting legislative counsel and other professionals to provide services related to the drafting and enactment of legislative texts.

The paper then turns to the role of legislative counsel themselves (which of course depends substantially on what their offices do) and considers various aspects of this role in some detail. It then considers the roles of others who may work in a legislative services office, most notably jurilinguists, editors (revisors), specialist legal advisors and informatics support staff.

The paper concludes by asking whether legislative services offices and counsel should aspire to the roles presented here and whether such aspirations are realistic given the limitations and pressures that they have to contend with.

The paper also has 5 appendices of reference documents developed by the Legislative Services Branch. They provide examples of how some aspects of the roles of legislative services offices and legislative counsel have been elaborated in the Canadian context.

A Brief History of Legislative Drafting

Legislative drafting has long been recognized as a specialized discipline, dating back to at least the 15th century in England when, according to Craies on Statute Law, a committee of judges, counsellors and officials was charged with drafting statutes based on petitions from one or both Houses of Parliament.[4] From the end of the 15th century conveyancers drafted English statutes, although by 1752 a Commons clerk, Robert Yeates, appears to have been effectively appointed as the first of a series of officials whose responsibilities included legislative drafting, not only for the Commons, but also for the Treasury.[5] From about 1837 the Home Secretary was responsible for drafting the most important government legislation until 1869, when the Office of Parliamentary Counsel was established in the Treasury. Thus in England there is a fairly extensive history of legislative services being provided by individuals who did not merely possess drafting skills, but who also enjoyed a certain pre-eminence in providing such services and worked in specialized groups. This institutional model now predominates in parliamentary systems throughout the world.

In Canada at the federal level, the Law Clerks of the Senate and of the House of Commons provided drafting services to the members of these Houses, including ministers on occasion. In an unpublished note entitled “History of the Preparation of Government Legislation in Canada”, E.A. Driedger wrote:

… from the time of Confederation until 1920, or thereabouts, an organisation was being built up within the staffs of the two Houses of Parliament for the purpose of drafting Government Legislation. Beginning in the ‘20s, however, the organisation began to disappear until in 1927, or thereabouts, there were only two officers in the Law Branch of the House of Commons and only one in the Senate.

Driedger went on to describe how the drafting of government legislation devolved to the staffs of the various departments responsible for legislation with no centralised control. However, a practice of submitting draft legislation to the Department of Justice “grew in the late 1930s and early 1940s until we reached the point where the Department of Justice prepared most of the Government’s legislation.” In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Cabinet issued a series of directives effectively requiring all government bills to be drafted by the Department of Justice.[6]

As for the drafting of regulations at the federal level, the approach has generally been to have them drafted in the various departments responsible for them. However, since the enactment of the Statutory Instruments Act in 1970, all proposed federal regulations have been required to be examined by the Clerk of the Privy Council, in consultation with the Deputy Minister of Justice.[7] The examination is to ensure that each proposed regulation meets four criteria:

(a) it is authorized by the statute pursuant to which it is to be made;

(b) it does not constitute an unusual or unexpected use of the authority pursuant to which it is to be made;

(c) it does not trespass unduly on existing rights and freedoms and is not, in any case, inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights; and

(d) the form and draftsmanship of the proposed regulation are in accordance with established standards

In practice, the examination function is performed by various sections of the Legislative Services Branch, some of which are now located in the sponsoring departments. It has also evolved beyond the examination of draft regulations to entail the drafting of them.[8]

What Do Legislative Services Offices Do?

Range of Possible Roles

Legislative services offices are established to provide an institutional framework for the preparation of draft legislative texts (bills or proposed regulations or other delegated legislation) that will implement the policy goals of the persons or institutions they serve. Their establishment recognizes the existence of a specialized body of knowledge and a set of skills that constitute the discipline of legislative drafting. They foster this discipline and keep it alive in so far as it is largely neglected in academic legal education and in training programs offered by legal professional bodies.

Offices that provide legislative services come in many shapes and sizes, even within a single jurisdiction. For example, at the federal level in Canada, there is not only the Legislative Services Branch of the Department of Justice (which drafts Government bills and regulations) but also various departmental offices that draft regulations and other forms of delegated legislation (for example, Legislative and Regulatory Services at the Department of National Defence). There are also separate offices that draft private members’ bills for senators and members of Parliament (the Offices of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel for each of the Senate and the House of Commons).

A legislative services office is usually part of a larger government institution, which frames the scope of its mandate. If it is part of a department, such as the Department of Justice, that provides legal services generally to a government, then it provides legislative services on a government-wide basis as well. If it is instead part of a department that focuses on a particular subject, for example transport, then its mandate is confined to legislative text dealing with this subject.

The role of these offices varies considerably depending on the scope of their drafting mandates. An office that drafts bills for private members serves a diverse group with a wide range of different objectives and interests. It may function rather like a private law firm serving the needs of individual clients, rather than any common need. However, it may also serve the corporate needs of the larger institution, which in the United States has been taken to mean that no attorney-client relationship exists between legislative counsel and individual members.[9]

In contrast, when an office serves the Executive, its clients are institutions like government departments. Its responsibilities usually go beyond the interests of a particular instructing department. For example, in jurisdictions where Cabinet approval is required for the preparation of legislative text, the legislative services office takes its direction from the Cabinet and its secretariat (for example, the Privy Council Office) in precedence over that of the particular department responsible for the legislative text. An office that has a government-wide mandate is an attractive vehicle for implementing policies that are intended to have a broad effect. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, such an office may be responsible for the functioning and maintenance of a system of written law, ensuring the system’s coherence, intelligibility and efficiency in achieving policy objectives. These responsibilities may also include the protection of values associated with the entire legal system, such as fairness and equality, and are sometimes described in terms of “guarding the statute book”.

There are many ways in which a legislative services office may meet its responsibilities. They obviously include hiring and training staff who are capable of drafting legislative text that accomplishes what it is supposed to. They also extend to setting drafting standards, policies and procedures, publishing and revising legislative texts and acting as a focal point for ensuring the implementation of other government policies. Each of these is discussed below, first in terms of legislative services offices, then (where applicable) in terms of legislative counsel and other drafting professionals.

Drafting Standards, Policies and Procedures

The objective of developing and applying drafting standards, policies and procedures is not only to capture good drafting practices, but also to bring coherence and consistency to the legislative system. Some of the earliest examples of this are the Interpretation Acts that were enacted in the 19th century to shorten the length of legislative provisions by elaborating the content of standard provisions and allowing them to be stated in shortened form in particular Acts.[10] A notable example of interjurisdictional drafting standards has been developed by the Uniform Law Conference of Canada in the form of its Legislative Drafting Conventions.[11]

Drafting standards, policies and procedures are commonly issued through general instructions to legislative counsel. These may be consolidated into drafting manuals and guides,[12] many of which are now available in the Internet.[13] They may deal with many aspects of legislative drafting, ranging from establishing working relationships, procedures and drafting principles[14] to the wording used for particular types of provisions.

They may also be given greater force, as noted above, by being enacted in the form of legislation such as Interpretation Acts or Acts establishing processes for making delegated legislation or by being issued as ministerial directives. For example, in 1999 the Canadian Cabinet issued a general directive on law-making.[15] It deals with such matters as the constitutional framework for law-making, the use of law to achieve policy objectives, the relationship between Acts and delegated legislation, the need to prepare intelligible laws in both of Canada’s official languages and the importance of planning and managing law-making activities.

One of the more innovative ways legislative services offices can establish standards, policies and procedures is through specialized drafting projects that form laboratories for developing and testing new drafting techniques. Recent projects have focused on improving the readability of legislative text. They have been conducted in a number of countries around the world, including Australia, New Zealand the UK[16] and Canada.[17]

Publication and Revision of Legislative Text

The responsibilities of a legislative services office may also extend to the publication and consolidation of legislative text. This includes establishing its format and, more recently, preparing and maintaining electronic databases of legislative text.[18] Associated with this role is the preparation of reference material such as indexes and tables to make it easier to find relevant legislative text and verify its current state. This aspect of the work of a drafting office is assuming increasing public profile as legislative text becomes more available on the Internet.[19]

Revision is also a function traditionally associated with legislative services offices. It goes beyond consolidation to improve the readability of legislative text or make other changes that do not alter its substance. A good example of this is the Program to Harmonize Federal Legislation with the Civil Law of Quebec.[20] It involves making the English and the French versions of federal legislative text consistent with both the common law and the civil law. However, its object is not to change the substantive law or to reform federal legislative text.

Hiring and Training Staff

A legislative services office will typically seek counsel who already have some legislative drafting experience, be it statutes, regulations or municipal by-laws. Failing that, they may engage staff with good potential. In any event, whether or not they have experience drafting in other jurisdictions, counsel who join a drafting office will require training at least in the practices and procedures of the office, if not in basic legislative drafting skills. As well, all legislative counsel – new or experienced – may require updating from time-to-time as practices, procedures and skills change or are otherwise refined.

Legislative services offices usually employ a range of other personnel to support the legislative counsel. These include secretarial assistants, computer specialists, legislative editors and, particularly in bilingual or multilingual jurisdictions, jurilinguists who review the equivalency of multiple language versions. There may also be specialized legal counsel to provide assistance on the resolution of legal questions that occur frequently in the preparation of legislative text, for example relating to the interpretation of legislative text, the enabling authority for delegated legislation or the harmonization of legislative text with systems of private law (for example, the Civil Code and the Common Law).

At a minimum, an office will offer newcomers on-the-job training. The Legislative Services Branch has supplemented this traditional method of training with a more formalized training process. In the Branch, initial training is provided by way of an orientation program, covering not only the Branch, but the Department as a whole. The program is supplemented by a mentor who helps the newcomer become established and by training in basic legislative skills. More specialized training is also provided to legislative counsel and, as part of an outreach program, training on the legislative process is provided to those outside the Branch who are involved in drafting legislative texts.

What Do Legislative Counsel Do?

This section describes a variety of functions that legislative counsel may carry out. However, they first and foremost work with a team of people engaged in the preparation of legislative text for enactment. In the Legislative Services Branch, these drafting teams generally include instructing officials, other legal counsel, editors, jurilinguists, informatics specialists and administrative assistants. As drafters of the text that is the focus of this endeavour, legislative counsel often assume a role akin to project managers, not only drafting text, but also coordinating a range of associated activities ranging from research into legal issues to the printing of the text. This role requires highly developed social and communication skills to ensure that the team functions harmoniously and effectively.

Implementing Policy through Law

The most basic role of legislative counsel is to ensure that the legislative text they draft is capable of implementing the policy goals of their clients. This link to legislative text – a form of law – explains why drafters have traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the legal profession.

Policy ranges from specific policies that a particular department wants expressed in legislative text to broader policies of the government as a whole that should be reflected in all of its legislative text. This presupposes that policy and legislative text are different, that there is a process for transforming the one into the other and that the legislative counsel are at the heart of this process.

The essential difference between legislative text and policy is that one is law and the other is not. Law operates within a relatively closed system of rules superintended by lawyers and judges. It is a tool for implementing policy by creating legal entities or rights, or by ascribing legally enforceable consequences to events or situations. If legislative text is not properly drafted, it is unlikely to implement policy effectively.

Legislative text must be clear and accurate. This requirement underscores how complex the role of legislative counsel is. They must not only appreciate what the legislative text is intended to accomplish, but must also know how language works to convey meaning. In addition, the fact that legislative text embodies the law, and does not merely describe it, suggests that a legislative counsel is much more than a stenographer or printer. They play a critical role in determining the effect that legislative text has.

Drafting is not just writing words to express policy ideas. It begins with understanding what is to be expressed. Legislative counsel are as much an audience for the communication of ideas (by instructing officials) as they are communicators of those ideas. The process of understanding ideas also involves analysing, critiquing and developing them.

The relationship between communication and analysis is easily recognized when one considers how we use written language to take a good look at ideas, whether they are our own or someone else’s. It is often only when ideas are written down that they can be seen for what they are. This is especially important with a long or complex series of ideas. By reading a written text, the reader can go over the content of the ideas it conveys and think critically about them and make connections among them or to other ideas. A written text arranges ideas in a particular order. Reading and rereading gives a better sense of how the ideas relate to each other, or how they may be disordered or disjointed.

If writing is useful for developing ideas generally, it is essential when ideas are to be developed by a group of people. It is the medium for exchanging and generating ideas in a definitive form that outlasts the transitory spoken word. In legal matters, documents necessarily apply to groups of people, some or all of whom are involved in their preparation. Draft texts are a means of coordinating their ideas and focusing the efforts of the group.

Another important aspect of legislative drafting is that it recognizes a distinctive role for legislative counsel in the preparation of legislative text: the person who holds the pen or, nowadays, sits at the keyboard. It establishes a dichotomy between those who give instructions on what the legislative text is supposed to accomplish (instructing officials, ministers, members of parliament) and those who find the words to meet this objective. Legislative counsel are as critical to drafting as an advocate to a court case or a chairperson to an effective meeting. They stand apart from those who give drafting instructions and find words to convey their intention to those who will later read the legislative text. The role of legislative counsel is to prepare a text that can be understood without knowing or having to remember all the discussion and other context surrounding its preparation.

Conformity with Drafting Instructions

In jurisdictions where legislative text – usually a bill but occasionally a regulation – is drafted on the basis of instructions from Cabinet, legislative counsel must ensure that their draft text is consistent with the drafting instructions approved by the Cabinet. In Canada at the federal level, sponsoring departments must bring any deviations from the approved policy to the attention of Cabinet, either in the form of a supplementary memorandum to Cabinet or else when the final draft of the bill is submitted to Cabinet for its approval. Motions to amend a bill must also be brought to the attention of Cabinet if they deviate from the original drafting instructions.

The process for giving drafting instructions varies considerably. However, in many jurisdictions one finds two sets of instructions. The first are formal, written instructions that are approved at the ministerial level. These instructions establish the broad parameters within which the legislative text is to be drafted. They also typically leave many details to be filled in at the drafting stage through a second set of less formal instructions provided by officials in the sponsoring department. The role of legislative counsel depends on the scope of these details. If much is left to be worked out at the drafting stage, they may be asked to prepare various alternatives and give an opinion on their merits.

This task can be especially difficult when Government policy results from negotiations among various departments, other governments or stakeholders. These negotiations are often time consuming and focus only on high-profile issues, leaving a host of other matters to be resolved at the drafting stage. The shift to meetings with instructing officials in drafting rooms, discussing and inputting changes simultaneously, has put additional pressure on legislative counsel when the policy has not been established. In these situations, instructing officials use the drafting room as a forum for developing their policy. The guidance from the Legislation Deskbook in Appendix 3 was developed to help those who draft bills to address these increased demands. It may also be helpful for the drafting of other legislative texts that are drafted in similar circumstances.

Legislative counsel generally have greater control over the wording of a legislative text when they are working from generally worded instructions that describe what the text is to do, In contrast, detailed instructions, often conveyed in the form of draft text, generally make it more difficult to discover the underlying policy. In addition, the draft text may also be freighted with expectations that little more needs to be done with it and further changes may be resisted on the basis that it has already been approved by stakeholders or reflects the wording of a treaty, agreement or standard that is to be implemented.

Appendix 1 contains a statement of the roles of legislative counsel and instructing officials taken from the Service Standards of the Drafting Services Group. It recognizes both the distinctive role of legislative counsel as well as the fact that the preparation of legislative text is a cooperative exercise that also depends on the contributions of other participants in the process.

Appendix 2 contains the Hallmarks of Well-drafted Legislative Texts, a document prepared within the Legislative Services Branch to establish standards against which to measure draft legislative text.

Conformity with Government Policies

Additional policy implementation functions for legislative counsel may involve ensuring that government policies are respected in draft legislative text. When an office has a government-wide mandate to draft, it is a logical point to situate these functions. At the federal level in Canada, legislative counsel have a role in ensuring adherence to a variety of government policies relating, for example, to

  • gender equality: see below under Compatibility with Legal Values,
  • law-making: see Cabinet Directive on Law-making,[21]
  • regulatory matters: see Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation,[22]
  • criminal law and enforcement powers: see Legislation Deskbook, section 3.7,
  • information management: see Treasury Board Policy on the Management of Government Information;[23]
  • environmental matters and sustainable development.[24]

Consistency with the Constitution and International Law

Legislative counsel are usually expected to ensure that the text they draft is consistent with constitutional and international law, particularly relating to human rights, the environment and international trade. This responsibility is potentially vast. They cannot, however, be expected to know the details of all this law. Their role is not to be experts, but rather to uncover potential problems and ensure that they are satisfactorily resolved, if need be by enlisting the support of other specialized legal services.

In Canada, the role of legislative counsel in this area is signalled by the fact that the Chief Legislative Counsel discharges the responsibility of the Minister of Justice for examining bills for consistency with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights.[25] Similarly, the responsibilities of the Deputy Minister of Justice to assist in the examination of draft regulations for the same consistency[26] are discharged by the Regulations Sections of the Legislative Services Branch. The primary review is in practice conducted by legislative counsel in the Drafting Services Group in consultation, as needed, with Charter specialists in the Human Rights Law Section of the Department. This recognizes that they are uniquely placed to appreciate the implications of the legislative text they draft and assess its consistency with fundamental rights.

Consistency with Other Acts of General Application

The preceding comments on constitutional and international law also largely apply in relation to other laws of general application. The most obvious example is the relevant interpretation statute (often called the Interpretation Act), which contains a series of rules and definitions that need not be repeated when drafting legislative text. This has the advantage of both reducing the volume of new legislative text and ensuring consistency across the laws of a particular jurisdiction. However, it also has the disadvantage of relative obscurity in so far as few people know of its existence, let alone the details of its provisions.

A list of other important Canadian Acts of general application and a brief indication of how they relate to legislative text generally is included in Appendix 4.

Compatibility with Systems of Private Law

In jurisdictions that have more than one system of private law, legislative text may have to be harmonized to operate effectively with all such systems. In Canada, the province of Quebec has a civil law system of private law, while the rest of the country operates under the common law. A general revision process is underway to harmonize all federal law with both systems where appropriate. In addition, all new legislative text that applies in Quebec and the other provinces must be drafted in a harmonized fashion as well. This process is supported by the Department of Justice Policy on Legislative Bijuralism[27] and reflects sections 8.1 and 8.2 of the Interpretation Act.[28]

Federal legislative counsel should also understand that, despite the attribution of certain legislative powers relating to matters of private law (for example in relation to divorce, bankruptcy, bills of exchange), federal legislative texts that affect property and civil rights often depend on provincial or territorial private law. When it is in a complementary relationship with this law, legislative counsel must be able to recognize the differences in this law that could affect the application of the federal text in the province or territory. In Canada, the bijural application of federal legislative texts requires legislative counsel to be familiar with the particularities of provincial or territorial private law, especially the civil law of Quebec, in order to correctly formulate texts that are either dissociated from the private law or are completed by it.

Compatibility with Legal Values

As lawyers, legislative counsel have been educated in the values that lie at the heart of our legal system. Although some of these values are now protected by constitutionalized rights, not all of them are, or their protection is quite limited. In Canada, these values include:

  • procedural fairness and natural justice;
  • access to the courts;
  • prospective application of the law;
  • property rights;
  • parliamentary sovereignty (non-delegation of authority over fundamental matters such as the imposition of taxation or the creation of offences).

In addition, the Gender Equality Initiative of the Canadian Department of Justice calls on legislative counsel to be especially vigilant that legislative text does not have an adverse impact on women or members of other traditionally disadvantaged groups. They should be aware of the Departmental Policy on Gender Equality Analysis.[29]

Legislative counsel have a role to play in ensuring that any incursions on these values are fully considered before they are drafted into legislative text and that the Cabinet has clearly authorized them. They should look for solutions that achieve the underlying policy objectives without infringing these values.


This aspect focuses on those who are affected by the legislative text and concerns whether they can understand it. This concern has a number of facets, perhaps the most obvious of which involves ambiguity: instances when two or more distinct meanings can be attributed to a text. If an ambiguous word is used, it may end up being interpreted to express something different from what was intended; if a modifier is misplaced, it may end up modifying the wrong part of speech. The role of legislative counsel here is to point out the ambiguity and have the policy officials clarify which meaning is intended.

One of the most important ways in which legislative counsel avoid ambiguity is by ensuring consistency in the way ideas are expressed. Within a single Act, particular expressions should always be used to mean the same thing and different expressions should be used to express different things. Consistency also extends to the use of model provisions, most notably provisions used to make amendments to existing legislative text. However, this concern for consistency should not be set up as an impediment to improving the way provisions are drafted, particularly in terms of their intelligibility.

Another aspect of ambiguity relates to the bilingual nature of federal legislative text. The requirement for two language versions multiplies the chances of ambiguity, not only because there is twice as much text, but also because both versions must convey the same meaning. Ensuring that they do is one of the most important responsibilities of legislative counsel.

Vagueness is yet another facet of intelligibility, although it is not necessarily a problem in legislative text; in fact some degree of vagueness is usually unavoidable. Legislative counsel generally try to make legislative text as precise as possible, but just as there are limits on their time, so too there are limits on the degree of precision needed or desired. Just think of the rambling enumerations that bedeck some provisions  they only end up encumbering the text and discouraging readers. There is little point adding details to deal with an event that is highly unlikely. In addition, precision sometimes makes it more difficult to reach agreement on legislative text. If a bill is intended to embody the agreement among a number of contending interests, some points may have to be left vague in order to secure the approval of them all. There may not be agreement on every aspect and some of the details may have to be left to be worked out later through the interpretation of general language.

Legislative counsel also have a role to play in ensuring the readability of legislative text. If it is difficult to understand, it not only demands more time and effort from the reader, it also risks not conveying its underlying intent or achieving its policy objectives. This aspect may have a policy dimension in so far as legislative counsel should discourage unnecessarily complex policy. They should consider whether policy goals can be accomplished in a simpler way and whether elements of a legislative scheme are really needed.


The process of transforming policy into law forces those involved to think carefully about the policy and how it will be implemented. Policy includes more than general objectives. It must descend to a level of particularity that allows those affected by it to understand how it affects them.

Legislative counsel cannot hope to understand the subject-matter of draft legislative text as well as those who develop or administer the underlying policy. But they can bring a critical point of view that helps avoid practical problems. Often, those who provide instructions focus on the objectives of the document, without appreciating the details of how it will operate in practice. Legislative counsel can stimulate a consideration of these details by asking questions based on the knowledge they have gained in the relevant subject-matter and their experience drafting similar types of provisions. This experience may relate as much to the provisions themselves as to commonly overlooked implications for particular groups of people such as persons with disabilities.[30]

Other commonly overlooked issues involve the implementation and enforcement of legislative text. For example, if a proposal involves the creation of a regulatory regime, thought should be given to the powers that enforcement officials will need to monitor compliance and their ability to obtain evidence needed to prove violations. When an offence requires a certain mental element, what sort of evidence will be available to prove it? Would it be better to make the offence one of strict or absolute liability? Here legislative counsel can play a useful role in suggesting models from other legislative text and adapting them to the text in question. Similarly, if a proposal would amend existing legislative text or penalize the possession of things that are currently legal, transitional provisions will be needed. Here again, legislative counsel have a wealth of precedents to draw on to be used to work out the details necessary for a smooth transition from the old regime to the new.

Finally, legislative counsel have a role in coordinating amendments to a single piece of legislative text from various sources. The pace of a government’s legislative agenda may result in a series of bills or regulations that amend the same legislative text. In these circumstances, it is essential to coordinate the amendments to ensure that they take effect in the proper sequence through appropriately drafted coordinating amendments.

Legal Risk Management

In the Department of Justice, legal services are provided within a framework of legal risk management. This framework recognizes that there are limits to the certainty with which advice can be given about how legal issues will be resolved before courts and tribunals. Legal advice is generally qualified by an estimate of the level of risk that a legal issue will be decided against the Government in subsequent proceedings. In addition, measures are often developed to manage this risk should it materialize.

Although legislative counsel’s principal task is to prepare legislative text that will effectively implement the Government’s policy goals, there is generally some risk that the text will not, in all respects, achieve these goals. The risks are of two main types. First, the validity of the text may be successfully challenged before a court or tribunal on the basis that it conflicts with the Constitution or, in the case of delegated legislation, with its enabling legislation. Second, the text may not be applied or interpreted in the way that those who drafted it intended. Additional risks involve the application of international law in relations with other countries or before international courts or tribunals. Finally, parliamentary committees, such as the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations,[31] sometimes have a significant executive oversight role relating to legal matters that can give rise to legal risks.

Legislative counsel are expected to advise their instructing officials of any significant legal risks associated with the legislative text they are drafting and how that risk can be minimized, including through the use of other policy instruments.[32] On most legal issues, they work closely with departmental legal counsel or specialized legal counsel, particularly those with the Human Rights Law Section who advise on Charter matters. They should also correspondingly draft in a way that minimizes these risks and try to convince the instructing officials to accept provisions that do so. If they are unsuccessful, they should ensure that the risk level has been brought to the attention of senior officials and is fully understood.[33]

Information Technology

In recent years, computers and word processing tools have added a new dimension to the role of legislative counsel. In many jurisdictions, they play a far more direct role in the formatting and printing of legislative text. They are expected to prepare an electronic version of their drafts with embedded codes that determine margins and spacing. They also have a wealth of electronic tools for searching their drafts and making corrections as well as searching other databases, particularly those available on the Internet. Many jurisdictions make their legislative text available electronically, vastly augmenting the precedents that legislative counsel have to choose from.

Information technology also has much to offer in terms of delivering reference material to legislative counsel, for example the material available on the Legislative Services Our Tools Site.[34] It is also worth noting that the Government of the Netherlands has developed a system for integrating all of its drafting directives into the word processing programs that its legislative counsel use. When they draft particular types of provisions, they are automatically hyperlinked to the relevant directives.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the Legislative Services Branch legislative counsel are increasingly working with instructing officials in rooms equipped with computers having four monitors, one for each of those drafting the two language versions and two for the officials. As they discuss the draft, legislative counsel make changes that the officials can look at. This has vastly accelerated the speed with which legislative text can be drafted, but it also poses challenges in terms of stressful working conditions and the quality of draft legislative text produced under these conditions. These concerns can be alleviated if it is made clear that drafts remain just that until the legislative counsel are entirely satisfied in terms of their drafting responsibilities.

Who Else Works in a Legislative Services Office?

Many offices employ other professional staff who work closely with legislative counsel and who perform functions such as proof-reading that the latter have often performed themselves. This typically occurs in larger offices where economies of scale and resources allow certain aspects associated with drafting to be performed by others.

Most offices employ support staff whose roles have been more recently transformed into computer support functions as legislative counsel become computer literate and draft at the keyboard, rather than writing with pen and paper.

Bilingual or multilingual jurisdictions tend to employ translators or jurilinguists. Translators are found in places where legislative counsel work in one language and then have their work translated in the final stages of drafting. Jurilinguists work in places, such as the Legislative Services Branch, where legislative text is drafted by legislative counsel working in each language at the same time. Their job is to ensure that each version corresponds to the other. Jurilinguists help achieve, in both official languages, the highest possible quality of language when drafting legislative text. They also help ensure that the two official-language versions are parallel in meaning.

Legislative editors or revisors are also usually members of a drafting office, particularly those that are heavily involved in publishing. In the Legislative Services Branch, editors and revisors form a unit that provides revision services to legislative counsel. This unit is also responsible for the official publication of Acts of Parliament following Royal Assent (and related reference tables) and the consolidation of the Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982. It also maintains a complete, updated and indexed set of master copies of federal statutes and regulations

In Canada, jurilinguists and legislative editors and revisors provide critical support to legislative counsel in addressing the intelligibility of legislative text. They bring an independent perspective and distinctive expertise in language to bear on the preparation of legislative text and legislative counsels carefully consider their comments and advice.

Finally, drafting sometimes requires specialized legal advice on matters that come up in the drafting process. An office that provides government-wide legislative services usually has access to advisers from specialized legal services in the same government. In the case of the Legislative Services Branch, there are two specialized services within the Branch itself. One deals with questions of private law and the harmonization of federal legislative text with the Civil Code of Quebec and the common law of the other provinces and territories. The other deals more generally with legal and policy questions on legislative matters, such as the interpretation of legislative text and the making of delegated legislation.

Can Legislative Services Offices and Legislative Counsel Do All This?

Legislative counsel are heirs to a great discipline that has evolved over centuries. Its chief goal is to build and maintain systems of written law that are essential to the functioning of social and political entities and the welfare of their members.

The elements of legislative counsel's role discussed above constitute a daunting list of tasks. One might justifiably ask whether it is realistic, or indeed possible, to assemble an office with staff, including legislative counsel, who can do all these things. This question becomes even more pointed when one takes into account the conditions under which legislative text is often drafted, most notably when policy and drafting instructions are incomplete, the deadlines are short and the drafting is being done with instructing officials in drafting rooms, discussing and inputting changes simultaneously.

Despite these challenges, legislative counsel and the offices they work in should nonetheless aspire to fulfill the roles outlined in this paper through the development of skills, practices and work tools to assist them. Success in fulfilling these roles also depends on good working relationships with those who work with legislative counsel, including their instructing officials and those who provide revision, advisory, informatics or other support services. These relationships must be built on an understanding of, and respect for, the roles of each in the preparation of legislative texts.

Appendix 1  Drafting and Advisory Services Group Service Standards

Legislation Section
* We are available to advise and assist you in the development of the policy to be implemented by your legislation.

* Finalize, as much as possible, the policy to be implemented by your legislation before we start drafting it.

* Promptly after Cabinet authorizes the drafting of your legislation, we will inform you of the names and telephone and fax numbers of the legislative counsel assigned to draft the legislation and endeavour not to change counsel.

* Assemble, before Cabinet authorizes the drafting of your legislation, an instructing team capable of working in both Official Languages and directed by a person who has power to make policy decisions or who has easy access to such a person.

* We will convene drafting meetings and keep you regularly informed of the progress of your legislation.

* Make yourself available to attend drafting meetings and otherwise to give drafting instructions on your legislation.

* We will ensure that legislative counsel working in both Official Languages are present at each drafting meeting.

* Ensure that your instructing team at each drafting meeting is capable of discussing the subject-matter in depth in both Official Languages

* We will work with you in fixing a reasonable completion date for your legislation, taking into account its length and complexity and government priorities.

* Consult us before fixing fix a completion date for your legislation.

* We will draft your legislation in a timely manner, bearing in mind any completion date, and will promptly inform you of any delays in drafting.

* Give drafting instructions and answer questions in a timely manner, bearing in mind the agreed-upon completion date.

* We will draft your legislation in a manner that is legally sound, clear, comprehensive and responsive to your needs and, in particular, we will propose solutions to any legal and drafting problems that may arise in the course of drafting.

* Give drafting instructions that are clear, comprehensive and responsive to any questions put to you.

* We will draft your legislation in a manner that is respectful of the rules and spirit of each Official Language and of the Common Law and Civil Law systems.

* Review both language versions of your legislation thoroughly instead of giving only a cursory examination to one or the other.

* We will assist you in having your legislation enacted by Parliament and, in particular, we will draft amendments to your legislation for use in Parliament.

* Advise us as soon as possible if you will require amendments to your legislation for use in Parliament.

* We will be accessible in person and by e-mail and voice mail during normal business hours and at other times by arrangement.

* Let us know how we did on your file, in particular by responding to any client satisfaction survey that we may send to you.

Regulations Sections
* We will provide legal advice that is legally sound, clear, comprehensive and responsive to your needs.

* Explain your proposed policy clearly and concisely, drawing to our attention any practical considerations that we should take into account in formulating our opinion or drafting the proposed regulation.

* We will draft regulations from instructions and examine draft regulations to ensure that the regulations are legally sound, comprehensive and responsive to your needs and, in particular, we will propose solutions to any legal and drafting problems that may arise in the course of drafting

* Give drafting instructions that are clear, comprehensive and responsive to any questions put to you.

* We will draft your regulations in a manner that is respectful of the rules and spirit of each Official Language and of the Common Law and Civil Law systems.

* Review both language versions of your regulations thoroughly.

* We are available to advise and assist you in respect of the authority to adopt regulatory schemes.

* Consult with us about proposed regulatory schemes and finalize the policy to be implemented before giving drafting instructions.

* Promptly after receiving your request to draft and examine the regulations, we will inform you of the names and telephone and fax numbers of the legislative counsel assigned to the file and endeavour not to change counsel.

* Assemble an instructing team capable of working in both Official Languages and directed by a person who has the authority to make policy decisions or who has easy access to such a person.

* We will work with you in establishing reasonable time frames, taking into account its length and complexity and government priorities.

* Consult us before fixing a completion date.

* We will draft and examine your regulations in a timely manner, bearing in mind any completion date, and will promptly inform you of any delays in drafting.

* Give drafting instructions and answer questions in a timely manner, bearing in mind the agreed-upon completion date.

* We will convene drafting meetings and keep you regularly informed of the progress of your regulations.

* Make yourself available to attend drafting meetings and otherwise to give drafting instructions.

* We will ensure that legislative counsel working in both Official Languages are present at each drafting meeting.

* Ensure that your instructing team at each drafting meeting is capable of discussing the subject-matter in depth in both Official Languages and is knowledgeable in the area that the regulations cover

* We will assist you in steering your regulations through the regulatory process.

* Throughout the process, let us know when we can be of assistance to you.

* We will be accessible in person and by e-mail and voice mail during normal business hours and at other times by arrangement.

* Let us know how we did on your file, in particular by responding to any client satisfaction survey that we may send to you.

Appendix 2 – Hallmarks of Well-drafted Acts and Regulations

This document outlines the basic principles that the Legislative Services Branch applies to the drafting of bills and regulations, including principles recognized in the Uniform Drafting Conventions adopted by the Uniform Law Conference of Canada.

Accurate expression of policy

Both language versions have the same meaning and accurately give effect to the intended policy.

Solid legal foundation

Well-founded on legal authority, reflecting basic legal principles and operating compatibly with related laws and legal systems, including:

  • the Constitution, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
  • quasi-constitutional laws (for example, the Canadian Bill of Rights);
  • the common law and the civil law;
  • international law and Canada’s international legal obligations;
  • Aboriginal and treaty rights;
  • Acts of general application (for example, the Financial Administration Act and the Criminal Code);
  • other legislation (federal, provincial and territorial) that applies to the same subject-matter;
  • enabling legislation (in the case of regulations).

Drafted taking into account the needs of readers

Written simply, clearly and concisely, expressing the law as naturally as possible in both official languages with the required degree of precision.

  • Organization
  • the text proceeds from the general to the particular, from the rule to the exception and from important matters to details;
  • provisions describing a process follow its order and provisions describing a sequence of events follow their chronology;
  • elements are included to help readers find the provisions they are looking for, including a summary, table of contents, titles, headings and marginal notes;
  • the title succinctly indicates the subject-matter of the bill or regulation and the headings and marginal notes reflect the relationships between the parts and the whole;
  • if a statement of purpose is required, it is structured as a section rather than as a preamble.

Sentence Structure

  • sentences are as short as clarity and precision will allow;
  • sections deal with a single idea or with a group of closely related ideas, but can have more than one sentence;
  • paragraphs are used only if they improve communication of the message to the reader; subparagraphs and clauses are used even more sparingly;
  • paragraphs in the middle of a sentence (clause sandwiches) are avoided;
  • verbs are in the present tense and indicative mood unless the context requires an exception;
  • careful use of the passive voice;
  • internal references are used sparingly;
  • the singular is used, rather than the plural.


  • technical terminology is used only if precision requires it;
  • redundant or archaic words and phrases are avoided;
  • neologisms are used with caution;
  • terms from languages other than English are used only if they are generally understood and if there is no equally clear and concise way of expressing the concept in English;
  • different terms are not used to express the same meaning in a single text;
  • the same term is not used with different meanings in a single text, unless, in a given context, the particular meaning that is intended is clear and no other term is suitable.


  • are used sparingly;
  • have no substantive content;
  • do not give an artificial or unnatural sense to the term defined.

Appendix 3 – Policy Role of Drafters (Legislation Deskbook)

Role generally

Instructing officers are responsible for giving instructions on the legislative policy to be implemented by a bill. The drafter’s principal role is to take that policy and fashion it into legislation. Ideally, that policy will have been completely formulated when presented to the drafter in the form of drafting instructions, but this rarely occurs in practice. The drafter will normally have to assist in filling gaps in policy. This allied policy role of the drafter can arise either before or after the general policy has been approved by Cabinet.

Role before Cabinet has approved general policy

The drafter’s policy role is usually played out after Cabinet has approved the general policy as evidenced by a Record of Decision. However, drafters are occasionally consulted before this. For example, drafters may be called upon to comment on a draft Memorandum to Cabinet. This can be useful in giving a drafter’s point of view to policy makers (for example, by pointing out that the first step in plain language drafting is simple policy). It also gives drafters a better understanding of the policy they could eventually be asked to draft into legislation. The problem is that it can be very time-consuming and compromise the drafter’s sense of critical detachment from the policy to be implemented.

Role after Cabinet has approved general policy

Even after Cabinet approval of the policy, the drafter’s policy role can be very time-consuming. Major issues may have been unresolved at the Cabinet table or not even raised. As well, the shift to meeting with drafters in drafting rooms, discussing and inputting changes simultaneously, has put additional pressure on drafters when the policy has not been established. How is the drafter to cope? Here are some guiding principles:

  • Policy-making is the responsibility of the instructing officers, not the drafter. Drafters can help them see the options, but they cannot select one.
  • Drafting time should not be spent exploring a series of distinct and complex possibilities. If, in a drafting meeting, it becomes apparent that the instructing officers disagree about policy on a particular point, the point should be deferred and the disagreement settled elsewhere.
  • Drafters should not draft alternative provisions if requested to do so because of a disagreement or indecision over policy. Get the policy settled and then do the drafting, not vice versa.
  • Drafters should not draft a provision on the request of instructing officers “to see what it would look like”. Policy should be settled on principle, not form.
  • It is not the drafter’s role to defend the client’s policy in the face of objections from other departments. Drafters may try to clarify the issues, but should remain as neutral as possible. It is the responsibility of the Legislation and House Planning/Counsel Secretariat to mediate disputes among departments.
  • Drafters should not hesitate to call other members of the Department of Justice or officials in other departments to help resolve an issue. Consideration of the issue should be deferred until this assistance is obtained.
  • If drafters appear before parliamentary committees, they must confine their comments to drafting matters and must not try to explain or defend the policy underlying the bill.

Appendix 4 – Canadian Legislation of General Application

Access to Information Act and Privacy Act

The Acts govern the disclosure of information held by the Government. They are especially relevant to provisions that either prevent or require the disclosure of this information. If provisions restricting access to government information conflict with the Access to Information Act, they will be overriden by section 4 of that Act, unless they are listed in Schedule II as exceptions. Such provisions should only be included when they differ from the provisions of these Acts and the differences are justifiable. Before including them, drafters should consult the Access to Information and Privacy Section.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act

This Act requires assessments of the likely environmtal impact of a wide range of proposed Government decisions and activities.

Canadian Human Rights Act and Official Languages Act

These Acts protect the basic rights of individuals, including linguistic rights. They are regarded as quasi-constitutional and contain provisions stating that they prevail over all other legislation in cases of inconsistency.

Criminal Code and Contraventions Act

These Acts provide an administrative framework for offences created by federal legislation. This framework includes investigatory powers and procedures for prosecution or other disposition of offences.

Canada Evidence Act, Crown Liability and Proceedings Act and Federal Courts Act

These Acts deal with court proceedings relating to the administration of federal legislation or the Federal Crown.

Financial Administration Act

This Act deals with the financial affairs of the Government of Canada, including the collection and expenditure of public money and an accountability framework for Crown corporations. Drafters should particularly note sections 11, 41 and 87, which operate despite any other Act.

Interpretation Act

Interpretation Acts were originally enacted to avoid repetition of rules that were commonly included in individual Acts. Accordingly, subsection 3(1) of the Interpretation Act provides that the Act applies to every Act and regulation “unless a contrary intention appears”. The rules in the Interpretation Act include rules on

  • Operation (ss.5-8): the operation of Acts and regulations in time and place
  • Construction (ss.8.1-34.1): common law and civil law terminology; law always speaking; imperative and permissive construction; enactments remedial; binding on the Crown; corporate powers; majorities and quorums; tenure and powers of public officers; computation of time; gender and number
  • Definitions (ss.35-39): definitions of commonly used terms, including “Act”, “affirmative resolution”, “calendar year”, “Canada”,“contravene”, “Governor in Council”, “month”, “negative resolution”,“oath”, “person”, “province”, “superior court’, “territory” and “year”
  • References and citations (ss. 40-41):  the citation of  Acts and regulations and references to their provisions
  • Repeal and amendment (ss. 42-45): power to amend or repeal Acts; the effect of the repeal, or the repeal and substitution of, enactments.

The drafter should always keep the provisions of the Interpretation Act in mind and, unless there is some special reason for not doing so, the drafter should draft in accordance with its provisions.

Public Service Rearrangement and Transfer of Duties Act

This Act allows the Governor in Council to reorganize the public service, including the creation and amalgamation of departments and the reassignment of ministers.

Public Service Employment Act, Public Service Staff Relations Act and Public Service Superannuation Act

These Acts deal with the employment of public servants, including hiring, dismissal and the negotiation of terms and conditions of employment.

Oceans Act

This Act provides for the application of Canadian law in the offshore areas surrounding Canada’s land mass.

Publication of Statutes Act, Statutory Instruments Act and Statute Revision Act

These Acts provide for the promulgation of federal legislation.

Drafters should be aware of these Acts since they deal with issues that frequently arise in drafting legislation. Some provide supplementary rules that need not be repeated in other legislation. For example, the Criminal Code provides rules about the investigation and prosecution of offences while the Oceans Act provides rules about the application of Canadian law in the waters surrounding Canada.

Appendix 5 – Canadian Manuals and Guides

Reference and Language
Guide to Making Federal Acts and Regulations, Privy Council Office


Technical, but easily understood
The Role and Structure of the Privy Council Office, current Privy Council Office


Easily understood
Responsibility in the Constitution, 1993 Privy Council Office ISBN 0-662-58782-0


Easily understood
Composition of Legislation, 2nd ed., 1976 E. A. Driedger ISBN 0-660-00443-7


Detailed and technical
Drafting Conventions for the Uniform Law Conference of Canada Uniform Law Conference of Canada


Legislation Deskbook Department of Justice (Legislative Services Branch) Bilingual Detailed and technical
Guide canadien de rédaction française Department of Justice (Legislative Services Branch)


Detailed guidance on drafting in French
Legistics Department of Justice (Legislative Services Branch)


Detailed guidance on drafting in English
Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation Treasury Board Secretariat (Regulatory Affairs Division)


Easily understood
Assessing, Selecting, andImplementing Instruments for Government Action Treasury Board Secretariat (Regulatory Affairs Division)


Easily understood
Federal Regulations Manual, 1998 Department of Justice (Regulations Section) Bilingual Technical, but easily understood

  1. The Preparation of Legislation, Report of a Committee Appointed by the Lord President of the Council (Renton Report), Cmnd 6053, London, 1975.
  2. Ibid. at 149: "(3) There should be no large scale transfer of drafting work away from the Government draftsmen."
  3. Ibid.: "(6) All available methods should be used to recruit and train more draftsmen as a matter of high priority."
  4. S.G.G. Edgar, Craies on Statute Law, 7th ed. (Sweet & Maxwell, London: 1971) at 21.
  5. A.G. Donaldson, “The High Priests of the Mystery: A Note on Two Centuries of Parliamentary Draftsmen” The author has a copy of this with a hand-written note from James Ryan, former Chief Legislative Counsel of Canada, saying that he received it from an Northern Ireland drafter, Bill Leitch.
  6. R.C. Bergeron, “Legislation Section: 50 Years of Legislative Drafting in Ottawa” (1997), No. 199 Inter Pares 4.
  7. R.S.C. 1985, c. S-22, s. 3.
  8. V. Kooiman, “The Regulations Section: A Quarter Century” (1997), No. 199 Inter Pares 6.
  9. See D. Brown and D. Cartin, “Position statement on the attorney-client relationship in the legislative employment setting” (1996), 10 The Legislative Lawyer 3.
  10. See Law Commission of New Zealand, A New Interpretation Act, “To Avoid Prolixity and Tautology” (Wellington : 1990) at 3, citing Lord Brougham’s Act of 1850.
  12. A list of the principal Canadian manuals and guides is contained in Appendix 5.
  13. See, for example the manuals of New Zealand (, the Commonwealth of Australia (
  14. See, for example, Appendix 1 – Drafting and Advisory Services Group Service Standards and Appendix 2 – Hallmarks of Well-drafted Acts and Regulations.
  15. Available on the Privy Council Office website at
  16. See
  17. Canadian projects include the federal Employment Insurance Act and the Highway Safety Code of Quebec.
  18. See, for example, Part III of the Statute Revision Act, enacted by SC 2000, c. 5, s. 71 (not in force).
  19. For example, the Legislative Services Branch of Justice Canada makes federal legislation available at Canadian legislation is generally available through ACJNet at
  20. See
  24. For example, the Cabinet Directive on implementing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Departmental Sustainable Development Strategies under section 24 of the Auditor General Act, RSC 1985, c. A-17 and the Sustainable Development Framework Checklist: http://dojnet/sd_e/legal_issues.htm.
  25. Department of Justice Act, RSC 1985, c. J-2, s. 4.1 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Examination Regulations SOR/85-781.
  26. Above, n. .
  28. RSC 1985, c. I-21.
  29. </sup>
  30. See D. Lepofsky and R. Graham, “Universal Design in Legislative Drafting – How to Ensure Legislation is Barrier-free for People with Disabilities” unpublished paper presented at the 2008 Conference of the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice on Legislative Drafting, Ottawa, September 11-12, 2008.
  31. </sup>
  32. See Guide to Making Federal Acts and Regulations, chapter 1.1 (Choosing the Right Tools to Accomplish Policy Objectives:</span> </li>
  33. For further details, see Statutory Examination and Legal Risk Management in Drafting Services at http://dojnet/lsb_e/policy/statutory_examination/stat_exam_part1.htm.
  34. http://dojnet/lsb_e/tools.htm.</sup>
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