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Teaching Legislation

I work for a government agency and I am not a lawyer. Our legislative regime is defined through statutes (Acts), regulations and protocols. Basically the statutes specify the broad legal provisions while the regulations flesh out the details and the protocols provide additional guidance. The statutes reference themselves, the regulations reference the statutes and the protocols reference the statutes and the regulations.

What I am interested in is techniques for explaining unwieldy statutes and regulations to lay persons (which includes the regulators who have to enforce the regime) and for representing dependencies between statutes, regulations and protocols. The latter is particularly germane as we are in the process of major legislative revisions. Although I am interested in plain language translation of our statutes I am mostly interested in graphical depiction of the legal framework.

I thought I'd start by sticking the table of contents of our primary statute and regulation side by side on a piece of E size (33" x 44") paper and drawing arrows. I have also thought of using flow charts and cross-functional flow charts to illustrate the regime with annotations that reference the specific legal provisions.

Any suggestions or comments would be appreciated.

-- Simon Shutter (email)

Footnoting is still the traditional (print) method for lawyers. I think a better method is to use hypertext links; "up" to the source(s) and "down" to the elaboration(s) and the "glossings" found in legislative sources and administrative rulings and/or judicial case law.

But the real problems to be solved come with the limitations of display during the teaching presentation, when trying to show comparisons, contrasting approaches, and revisions and developmental flows. As Professor Tufte instructs, computer displays are quite limited in the ability to "compare." So even with a projective device it is difficult to get all that one might want to show and discuss up and before the audience at one time to allow side by side, up and down, and out and back comparison(s) when one is most usually working off a line of type.

[Complicated displays often go off tract and into a detour of serving "Mr. Computer," instead of staying on the topic at hand.] J. D. McCubbin

-- J. D. McCubbin (email)

An interesting challenge. Here are a couple of ideas that might help.

You said the statutes reference themselves, and lower documents reference up to the statutes. That, presumably, is because the statutes are written first so when the statutes are written there's nothing to refer to.

So what's missing is referencing DOWNWARDS so that starting from the briefest statements in the statutes the reader can follow down to ever more specific meanings in the lower documents.

Could you perhaps take any important rule in a statute and show the hierarchy beneath it. Typically, that would be some references to definitions near the start of the statute, plus references down to fragments of regulations etc, and from those fragments down to anything else that provides extra details of meaning.

I'm not a lawyer either but sometimes have to refer to legal documents. It almost always ends up being a downward chase for some kind of clarity on what key words mean.

In teaching from a structure like this it won't always be obvious where to start. Sometimes the top level is so abstract and alien that saying it to someone just leaves them baffled. Sometimes the top level is a good statement of a concept and it is only specific rules of interpretation in specific situations that are needed to improve understanding.

-- Matthew Leitch (email)

Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

Ian, thanks for the suggestion to use mind-mapping - I thought that mind-mapping might be more applicable to the creation of legislation from scratch and I have to admit the web site didn't bolster my confidence. Perhaps I've misunderstood your suggestion. Are the details and outcome of your particular project publicly available?

J.D.McCubbin, I agree that this is a natural application for hyperlinks and I think it may be possible to scale the presentation of the information to fit within 800x600 resolution. I also believe that a poster-sized print would augment the computer screen. The former could be a reference guide, the latter a map of the legislation.

Matthew, you're absolutely right that the statutes don't reference downwards except generically "[ as prescribed | as specified | in accordance with ] the regulations". We definitely need to add hyperlinks to these generic references that take the user to the appropriate place(s) in the supporting regulations and protocols. We also need to add annotations that give the plain language interpretation of the legal provisions.

You're also correct that it makes sense to add starting points, especially where the table of contents in the legislation doesn't do this well. We are currently looking at our web site in a similar vein and recognizing that we need to present content-by-audience/topic instead of the bureacracy of the organization (all the web design and information architecture books hammer away at this for obvious reasons).

Returning to my original question, my current thinking is to construct a data model with the various legislative pieces and to define the relationships between them ie an act has a one to many relationship with the various regulations that support it etc. The data model would help structure the data for later manipulation and presentation. It would allow improved tracking of revisions to provisions, addition of annotations and plain language interpretation, keywords for topic and audience etc. But first, I am going to work off a large piece of paper to get a better handle on the various relationships and see where it takes me.

-- Simon Shutter (email)

Are you making a "snapshot" or a "movie"? Think carefully about how you want to deal with the time factor more of a (hidden) problem as you deal with federal statutes and their evolution through case law; this will necessitate consieration of differing interpretations in the differeing district and circuit courts. Think about how to clarify the confusions introduced by recodification of statutes which complicate the references. J>D>

-- J. D. McCubbin (email)

There are some good illustrations, a bit like maps or flowcharts, of legal issues. These maps are relevant to your task. I saw an excellent maplike formulation of the federal tax code (a large map) that was sent to me a year or two ago. And maybe something on trusts and estates as well.

Can a Kindly Contributor identify this product that I'm talking about?

-- Edward Tufte

This post is related to the original question of teaching legislation and is an update on some of the methods we are using to communicate complex legislative changes.


During the past year our legislature passed two bills that first created a new statute and then amended it. However, as is often the case, the statue did not become law until new supporting regulations were passed earlier this month. Further complicating matters, not all the provisions in the statute became law. In the business area our challenge is explaining to clients what is now law and what is not, what changed, and what the changes mean in plain language.

Annotated Legislation

To communicate our legislation we have created a web version that allows the user to switch between a "clean" view and an "annotated" view. The clean view consolidates all revisions and hides all annotation. The annotated view shows added/deleted text in contrasting colors, much like MS Word's change-tracking feature. Revisions not yet in force are indicated with background shading and explanatory text is shown in a different color again. Hyperlinks facilitate navigation within and between the statute and regulation.

When the user clicks on a button to show/hide annotation, client-side JavaScript switches cascading style sheets that control how the text is displayed. This technique of style-switching allows maintenance of a single document instead of duplicative versions with and without annotation.

I'm not altogether happy with the font and background colors used to distinguish meaning of the text. Originally I used red for "deleted" and green for "new" text but a color-blind colleague immediately pointed out that about 10% of users would not be able to perceive the red/green contrast. This led me to investigate alternative color schemes and test them using Vischeck and Visibone. Even now, the colors look garish to my eyes and the contrast is not great to someone with severe color-blindness.

Annotated Timeline

We also created an annotated timeline using Visio to provide some context to the changes.

Any comments on this initiative would be appreciated.

-- Simon Shutter (email)

In response to Simon Shutter - do you intend to maintain this effort after the 2006 U.S. Code ( is published? It seems some agencies are sheperding their bits of the code within their own websites, but big brother is lagging on the grand project. Not lagging in the sense of behind on obligations, but perhaps the six year interval between publications may be a bit long in the internet age. Thoughts?

-- Niels Olson (email)

Actually, Niels, you will see from the link above that my jurisdiction is a province in Canada. However, you bring up a good point about time lags between new laws taking effect and having the text available to the public and business users.

Our intent is not to create duplicative copies of legislation. It's just that we want to provide (hopefully) value-added annotation that isn't otherwise available from the department that publishes all the legislation across government.

In my view, legislation is ideally suited to XML and related technologies, given its hierarchical nature and I hope that in the future we can move in this direction.

Again, I would appreciate comments from any kindly contributors on this initiative.

-- Simon Shutter (email)

I _thought_ that site didn't look like the rest of the EPA... Anyway, I'm working on some of this myself using Visio for flowcharts and its other capabilities. In the flowcharts any decision, process, or document that is mentioned by a law or regulation is noted in the block, and the block is hyperlinked to the web address for that law or regulation. Some regions of the flowcharts have no guidance, while other areas are packed. I'm also adding building diagrams to indicate where exactly people should go, who actually sits where.

When communicating processes, I've definitely found I can put more information on a page in flowchart form than in prose. The great medical illustrator, Frank H. Netter said "The making of pictures is a stern discipline. One may 'write around' a subject where one is not quite sure of the details, but, with brush in hand before the drawing board, one must be precise and realistic. The white paper before the artist demands the truth." Flowcharts are somewhere in between: decision language has to be in a decision block, and a decision block must have both a yes and a no coming out of it. Outside Computer Science process blocks are dangerous: what phone calls, what outside information enters and leaves, what decisions are made inside that process?

-- Niels Olson (email)

Interesting points, Neils. In biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics we like to draw cartoons that describe hypotheses (which we often call models). These cartoons often combine physical representations (DNA as a pair of strands or a helix), spatial aspects (is a reaction hapening near a membrane, or is an enzyme attached to the cytoskeleton?), and aspects of network and/or flow charts. The level of abstraction can vary wildly within such a diagram. It is amazingly difficult to draw these cartoons so that they do not imply more than we want them to imply.

-- Alex Merz (email)

Yes, I'll be taking the MCAT on the 14th, so I've become acutely aware that biochemistry and molecular biology drawings challenge one's any tendency to make assumptions. I recall a site somewhere that actually did a pro-con of errors in Lehninger and other texts, but I seem to recall a disclaimer about confining the assessment to the text, excluding the diagrams. Indeed, if a drawing shows a flat chemical formula of a chiral molecule, instead of a space-filling model, does that mean we don't know if the process depicted is enantioselective?

I've frequently been disappointed by the misleading flatness and unidirectionality of the endocrine system flowcharts (things like calcitonin versus parathyroid hormone feedback, or renin-angiotensin-aldosterone vs ADH vs atrial naturietic peptide): if A going down causes B to go down, it doesn't necessarily follow that if A goes up then B goes up (imagine a water tower supplying energy to a ratcheting wheel that pulls a chain that lifts a bucket: if you refill the water tower, even if you push the water back up the same pipe, the bucket doesn't go down. This might be similar to a fast-acting peptide hormone that in turn stimulates production of a long-dwelling steroid hormone), but the endocrine diagrams invariably only show one sequence of the arrows. Once I solicited the help of a systems engineer to try and set some of the hormone systems in mathematically rigourous feedback loops. He quickly helped me realize I don't even know if the feedback loops are first order, second order, or something more complex. Could Bode plots be derived, perhaps by taking many measurements of many individuals at known intervals? A search of PubMed returned 13 results for Bode AND plot (that's not much return for the National Library of Medicine's catalog. In contrast, a search for dermatomyositis returned 5303 results; dermatomyositis AND calcinosis AND universalis returned 18 results).

Still, as a class, the diagrams of biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, cell biology, genetics, and the other fields closely related to medicine are probably the most helpful and thoughtfully drawn as I've come across. In contrast, in physics courses we used what, at least I thought, was some fairly advanced math to derive solutions to Schrodinger's equation and usually finished with, at most, a two-dimensional graph. Conversely, I can't imagine learning this bio material without such abstractly rich 'cartoon' drawings.

I doubt Bode plots will be applied to legislative processes any time soon, so I guess this isn't adding much to the thread, but maybe someone will see another application for the thoughts. If the legislature has added (or subtracted) steps, could those steps be flagged to draw attention to themselves within a flowchart? Show abstracted steps with dotted borders?

-- Niels Olson (email)

As Alex and Niels have said, conveying a large amount of information in one diagram is basically what artwork in biochemistry is about, and it represents a far greater challenge in biochemistry than in, say, chemistry or physics, on account of the large number of facts that need to be available simultaneously. That is one reason, of course, why we need books like ET's.

I have recently been interested in analysing the metabolic differences between different bacteria, with a view to understanding as transparently as possible what consequences follow from the lack of particular genes from the genomes of particular bacteria. To do this, I thought it would be useful to be able to have a program to draw metabolic charts automatically on the basis of a command file -- to represent, for example, the metabolism of a particular organism on a chart representing Escherichia coli metabolism but with missing reactions greyed out.

Although, of course, charts of the central metabolism of Escherichia coli are widely available in books, web sites, etc., I wanted something that I could edit virtually instantaneously, and I also find most such published examples unsatisfactory because they use too many abbreviations, or omit too many names, or break up the scheme into too many discrete chunks, even though in reality it is all joined up. So I set myself the challenge of putting all the main reactions of carbohydrate metabolism onto a single A4 (approximately quarto) sheet, with all metabolites and enzymes named explicitly without abbreviations apart from standard ones like P for phosphate.

The best I can do so far is here. It's not perfect, of course (the text looks a lot better printed than it does on the screen, however, whereas the lines look worse, because I haven't learned how to define lines that are less than 1 point in width when printed), but I think it shows that one can pack a lot more information intelligibly into one page than is often done. With a bit of effort the "island" at the top right could probably be connected to the rest at its proper place, but I haven't figured out how to squeeze in the names of the transporters. (Some of the details and names may be wrong, incidentally: this project is from the past couple of weeks, and so far I've been concentrating more on design than on accuracy.)

-- Athel Cornish-Bowden (email)

Response to tax map query

I believe the product ET mentions is this:

A great idea in that determining ones taxes is a sequential process well-suited to a workflow diagram. The designers of popular tax software like TurboTax likely have constructed their own diagrams in creating the software.

Coincidentally, I discovered the above site from another Ask ET thread about icons (see for the humorous Personal Injury Warning System.)

-- Chris Frey (email)

Jonathan Corum, a very talented Yale undergraduate who took my course in analytical design, did the icons you mention. There are some good sparkline-like graphics organizing his website:

-- Edward Tufte

Flowcharts and the Law

I've found that effective use of charts in communicating the law tend to be focused on process, rather than actual code. For instance, there is an excellent flowchart by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that maps out the process of the American Criminal Justice System.

As to teaching the law, Ian Iredale has done some interesting work on this using .RTF (Rich Text Format) flowcharts with hyperlinks. He has some examples from Australian law, including the Law of Contract, Intellectual Property, Tax Equations, and the Legal Paradigm at http://

-- Russell Jurney (email)

There seem to be two ways of looking at the law (and many other topics, for that matter).

One way of looking at it is as a continuing evolutionary process. So for example, to understand the laws around airline safety and immigration in the United States, you have to put it in the context of the security situation around that time - terrorism, reform of the intelligence services, and so on -. Landmark udicial decisions are also likely to have a big influence on current practice and on the code itself.

This is a great way to look at things if you work in social policy, or if you need to have a broad understanding of the legal situation without understanding the nitty-gritty. However, it won't tell you much about what you should do if you actually want to engage with the law - it's not a 'how-to' manual.

The other way of looking at it is in terms of an understanding of how it actually functions on a daily basis - what form you should fill in, what sort of action you should take, what appeals are open to you, and so on.

This is a good way to look at things if your purpose is to be directly engaged in operating the system, because it will guide you as to what your next action should be in most cases.

Of course, a really good specialist will know the system both ways. They know the context, but they also know the specifics of how to work the system. By combining these two types of knowledge, they will find innovative ways of using (and possibly abusing) the system.

Showing the 'bridge' between these two types of knowledge is the most challenging and interesting issue.

-- Antoin O Lachtnain (email)

I think the key to briding the gap between these two kinds of knowledge is to get lawyers working on systems that base themselves on a visual representation of process that is sufficiently plastic to allow the expression of alternate strategies, the embedding of expert knowledge, etc. In time, through annotation, a system representing both kinds of knowledge will be born.

-- Russell Jurney (email)

I wrote up my work on the representation of legal knowledge here:

-- Russell Jurney (email)

With every election cycle, Reddit seems to get a bit more politically organized. Here's a list of elections of interest (the "wrath list") redditors have pushed to the front page.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Threads relevant to politics, economics, and policy:

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