Face to Face with Theresa Johnson, Law Draftsman, Department of Justice

Theresa Johnson, Law Draftsman at the Department of Justice’s Law Drafting Division, talks about her career and reveals the Division’s 2017 priorities, which include launching a new platform in late February that will transform electronic access to Hong Kong’s legislation.

From the atmospheric Man Mo Temple to the neo-classical-style Court of Final Appeal Building, Hong Kong’s heritage is one of East-meets-West. One needs to look no further than our bilingual common law system for an example of this melding of influences. Ensuring that both Chinese and English speaking people have full and equal access to Hong Kong’s laws in their own language is a responsibility Theresa Johnson takes very seriously as the new Law Draftsman of the Department of Justice’s Law Drafting Division (or LDD). Bilingual legislation in Chinese and English has unique challenges and Ms.Johnson believes members of the legal sector, as well as the general public, are ideally placed to contribute to future developments in how Hong Kong’s laws are drafted and published. She extends a warm welcome to them to give their feedback and suggestions.

As the Law Draftsman, Ms. Johnson leads the highly experienced LDD team to draft and publish legislation, which she has described as one of the fundamental building blocks of Hong Kong’s legal framework. Ms. Johnson indicated that the LDD, comprising 40 lawyers and 75 law clerks, language experts, secretaries, calligraphists and administrative and clerical staff, has a strong sense of purpose and cooperation and is heartened when she hears them warmly talk about “the LDD family”.

Light Bulb Moment

Ms. Johnson’s desire to contribute to society, coupled with her love of language and analytical thinking, motivated her to study law. After graduating from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, she joined a local law firm and practiced in litigation. Her next move was to the UK to undertake post-graduate study at Cambridge University. While there, she came across an advertisement for a legislative drafter back in Australia.

“Until then, I had never given much thought to how draft legislation came into existence. I will be forever grateful for that light bulb moment. I had found my niche!”

Apart from a brief flirtation with academia when she lectured in Constitutional Law and Administrative Law, Ms. Johnson has focused the last 30 years of her practice on legislative drafting. “It has a clear social value. It involves communication and collaboration and is intellectually challenging. For me, this is perfect and when you add the relationship and strategic aspects of leading a drafting and publishing division, I couldn’t be happier,” she said.

Law Drafting Division’s 2017 Priorities

From launching a new platform that will transform electronic access to Hong Kong’s legislation to assisting the Government to complete its packed legislation programme, Ms. Johnson revealed that 2017 will be a busy year for the LDD.

BLIS to Hong Kong e-Legislation Transition

“The Division’s role in the drafting of legislation is well known, but less so is its publishing work. Access to law is essential to the rule of law. This is not just about people being able to understand the law. It is also about people being able to access copies of the law,” Ms. Johnson explained.

“2017 will mark the culmination of a project begun in 2013 to transform electronic access to Hong Kong’s legislation. Our plan is that on Friday, 24 February, the current system (the Bilingual Laws Information System or BLIS) will be replaced by a new state of the art system, designed by a team within the LDD in collaboration with the department’s Information Technology Management Unit and a contractor. The Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen SC, has recently announced the new system is to be called ‘Hong Kong e-Legislation’ (HKeL for short),” she said.

As well as providing the existing functions of BLIS, HKeL introduces new tools to deliver a better user experience, including on mobile devices. These include:

  • new features that will allow users to view legislation in monolingual or bilingual mode, on either a whole chapter or individual section basis.
  • better research functions that will enable users to easily find legislation as at a particular point in time and to navigate, by timeline and drop-down box, through both current and past versions.
  • a subscription service that will keep users up-to-date about legislative changes.

According to Ms. Johnson, the most significant difference between the systems is that users will be able to print copies of verified legislation with legal status from HKeL. “Initially, over 100 verified items will be available but ultimately we aim to make the entire Hong Kong Statute Book available in verified form with legal status. Users will also be able to use a print-on-demand service to buy hard copies of verified legislation from the Information Services Department.” Legal status is given to verified legislation under the Legislation Publication Ordinance (Cap. 614).

Ms. Johnson indicated that it has not been possible for the LDD to verify all legislation immediately. “While digital copies of legislation are available in the BLIS system, they are for information purposes only. This means that before an item of legislation can be given official status in the HKeL system, the data needs to undergo a rigorous quality assurance process,” she said. This entails not only checking and updating the formatting, but, more importantly, checking the law’s text against the official version in the Loose-Leaf Edition of the Laws of Hong Kong. All of these processes are quite time-consuming, she explained.

Ensuring a quality user experience is very important to the LDD. In developing HKeL, they have relied on feedback from a liaison group and contributions made by representatives from professional bodies, the Judiciary and the Legal Service Division of the Legislative Council Secretariat. Ms. Johnson also encourages users to give feedback on the new system at the email address provided on the website.

“We aim to make the transition from BLIS to HKeL as easy as possible for everyone so, after the launch, users will be able to access the new system through the BLIS website and there will be an automatic redirect to the new website after about 15 seconds. For users who want to go directly to the new system, the address is: http://www.elegislation.gov.hk. Information about the new system will be available for all users and includes a series of short multimedia clips in Chinese and English that explain the major search functions and how to update printed verified copies,” she said.

Other Priorities

Once HKeL has been launched, the LDD’s main priority for 2017 will be to produce its core drafting and publishing work. The Government has a significant legislative programme to be completed. Apart from the legislation mentioned by Ms. Christina Cheung, Law Officer (Civil Law), Department of Justice, in the January issue (for example, the Apology Bill and the Arbitration and Mediation Legislation (Third Party Funding) (Amendment) Bill 2016), Ms. Johnson indicated that legislation has been announced on a range of other matters, including regulating the travel industry, the supply and use of medical devices, the local trade of ivory, and the cross-boundary movement of physical currency and bearer negotiable instruments. “Of particular interest to members of the legal profession will be draft legislation to give the court discretion to permit complainants of certain sexual offences to give evidence by way of live television link and legislation to reform some aspects of employment law,” she said.

Plain Language Proponent

Turning to issues of style, Ms. Johnson indicated that she has been a long-term plain language campaigner, having been involved in the movement since it began in Australia. “Back when the topic was still a novel one, I delivered a public address called Goodbye to Gobbledygook, and worked with the then Queensland Parliamentary Counsel to introduce plain language reform in that jurisdiction,” she said.

As for Hong Kong’s drafting style, plain language has been an increasingly important mantra within the LDD since the late 1990s and is seen as the key to being able to communicate the law. “It is more than simply using short sentences and avoiding legalese. It is the skill of distilling complex thinking into clear text and a mindset that puts the reader’s experience at the centre,” she explained.

As new formatting guidelines were released in 2010 and a style guide based on plain language principles was published in 2012, she indicated that incremental improvements are what lie ahead. The LDD plans to keep format and style matters under review and to stay abreast of international developments. She noted that two LDD counsel recently updated the Division after attending the 2016 Clarity Conference held in New Zealand. Clarity is an international organisation advocating plain legal language.

Clarity experts have explained that “a communication is in plain language, if the language structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find and use that information.” Ms. Johnson says she completely agrees with this statement. “Does our draft legislation communicate well to the people who will use it? – that’s what our job as legislative drafters is all about. This question is always at the forefront of my mind when I read a draft Bill,” she said.

Advancing Bilingual Legislation

Another challenge the LDD faces is in advancing bilingual legislation. Hong Kong has a relatively short history of drafting and maintaining legislation in both Chinese and English. Starting in 1986, the LDD undertook word-for-word renditions of all of the existing English laws into Chinese. As part of this, it was necessary to create Chinese terms to equate to English legal terms where there was no equivalent. Since then, much progress has been made. LDD has moved beyond word-for-word renditions and the new Chinese terms have gained a level of recognition and acceptance, Ms. Johnson explained.

Both English and Chinese texts in Hong Kong legislation are of equal status. Neither is subsidiary to the other. “With a view to further improving the readability of both texts, certain strategies are being employed or are being tested. For example, steps are taken to adjust the two texts throughout the drafting process and the Chinese text is prepared first in some projects,” she said.

“The LDD is committed to making Chinese and English legislation more comprehensible. As stated by the Secretary for Justice, during his address at the Translation and the Professions Symposium organised by the Hong Kong Translation Society in November last year, there is still room for improvement in the way Hong Kong legislation is drafted and made. We will make continual efforts to make our laws as simple and clear as possible without taking away from precision.”

In terms of publishing, bilingual legislation has a special set of challenges. “One of the main challenges is that not all developments in digital technology for English text are available yet for Chinese text. No doubt, this will change. Another challenge is the LDD effectively has a double workload associated with maintaining a Statute Book in two languages.”

That said, these challenges will not prevent the launch of the new Hong Kong e-Legislation system, Ms. Johnson confidently indicated.

How to Become a Legislative Drafter in Hong Kong

With the total number of legislative drafters being less than 40, the number of vacancies for lawyers interested in becoming legislative drafters is small. Three lawyers were recruited in 2016 and it is likely that two more lawyers will be recruited in 2017.

However, for lawyers interested in becoming legislative drafters, Ms. Johnson advises reading widely, honing your analytical skills and staying abreast of current affairs. “Drafting is about communicating in accordance with language rules. Reading widely is of great benefit to ensure that what you write (whether in Chinese or English) conforms to language rules and flows well. At its simplest, legislative drafting is about turning a policy proposal into a clear and effective law and, for this, high level analytical skills are a prerequisite. It also helps to be a practical person. And while legislative drafters must be studiously apolitical, they are part of the political process and need to have a good understanding of current affairs and be politically aware.”

As a matter of interest, the final stage of recruitment for Government Counsel for the LDD consists of a written test requiring applicants to do various tasks including one that involves detecting errors in a written passage, one that involves analyzing sample drafting instructions, and one that involves translating a literary passage from English to Chinese. Ms. Johnson indicated that the LDD has found that a strong performance on the written test, when taken with an applicant’s interview performance, is an excellent predictor of aptitude for legislative drafting.

A Sense of Appreciation

When reflecting on her first year as Law Draftsman, Ms. Johnson said she had been blessed with a smooth transition into her current role; a transition which she believes is due in large part to the contributions of the current LDD team (including her deputies, Gilbert Mo and Fanny Ip) and her predecessors (including Tony Yen, Eamonn Moran and Paul Wan). “What the LDD can achieve in 2017 heavily relies on what my predecessors and the LDD have already accomplished and the vision that the Secretary for Justice has articulated,” she said.

She also expressed her appreciation for her colleagues’ warm welcome. She beamed as she spoke of the lengths to which her LDD colleagues went to welcome her to the team, efforts that included filming a surprise video that was played at a farewell function in her previous office, the Office of the Queensland Parliamentary Counsel.


Theresa Johnson
Law Draftsman, Department of Justice

Ms. Theresa Johnson was admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland in Australia in 1984. She has some 30 years of drafting experience and has drafted a significant quantity of sensitive and highly complex legislation across a range of subject areas. After serving in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, Canberra, in Australia and taking up different teaching posts in the Australian National University and Queensland University of Technology in her early career, Ms. Johnson joined the Office of the Queensland Parliamentary Counsel (“OQPC”) in 1991. During her more than 20 years’ service in the OQPC she took up a number of senior positions and advanced to the head post of Parliamentary Counsel in 2010.



Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters