Column | In this jungle of life-altering statutory instruments, the law must be more accessible to all

Common Law with Mike Murenzvi

“Rule of law, access to justice, and financial transparency happen by design, not accident.” ~ Winnie Byanyima

Anyone who has ever tried to find out what laws apply to any activity they want to undertake can tell you that it’s not a simple task. This is because there are the Acts and then the numerous statutory instruments to consider. These statutory instruments tend to have so many amendments and repeals that one might get a copy of something that is no longer in force.

The Law Reviser – Keeper of the Law

There is a person called the Law Reviser, a public officer whose job, among other things, is to maintain up-to-date texts of each statute (Acts and statutory instruments) in a single document. This means that whenever there are amendments enacted, this person goes and updates the official copy of the Act or SI to make sure that it is the latest version.

This extremely important person is the central document controller and reviewer of all statutes. Even after a statute is gazetted, they have the power to read through it and make typographical and grammatical changes to it, as long as it doesn’t change the meaning of the provision amended.

From time to time, the Law Reviser is expected to compile revised editions of existing laws. At the time of publishing, the revised edition shall be accepted as the sole version of the statute until further amendments are made. There is an electronic repository of all updated Acts, going up to 2018, that you can buy from the Law Development Commission for a fee. Sadly, no such publicly available repository exists for statutory instruments, only a list.

According to Printflow (formerly Government Printers), the last revised edition of the Acts approved for printing was in 1996.

Keeping Current

Zimbabwean laws have been changing significantly over the past few years, especially with the constitutional alignment process. Added to this is the prevalence of SIs issued annually. Currently, these are being released at an average of almost one a day. In 2023, Zimbabwe had upwards of 250 SIs. In comparison, towards the end of 2023, Zambia had gazetted around 50.

Keeping SIs up-to-date was particularly important during the COVID period. During this period, national lockdown regulations were amended 44 times. The changes were so frequent that it became unclear what was in force and what was not. To date, there still hasn’t been any formal cessation of the public emergency. This means that the regulations are technically still in force.

There are other more immediate regulations, that affect our daily lives, which change quite regularly. These include VAT regulations, which determine what products attract VAT and at what rate. We also have various Customs and Excise regulations that govern what goods, and in what quantities, can be imported without applying for an import permit. These regulations determine what goods attract duties and other import taxes and at what rate and so on.

With the frequency of some of the changes, the risk of falling foul of the law is high.

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Accessibility in Other Jurisdictions

In contrast to Zimbabwe, both the UK and South Africa have their laws and government gazettes published online on official websites free of charge. The South African Government Printing Works is basically a library of documents filed by type, from Government Gazettes and notices, to Acts and Statutory Instruments.

The UK legislation website is set up as a full-scale database tool complete with notes and guides as to how legislation is crafted as well as draft legislation for public comment.

These resources allow relatively free and wide access to statutes to most people with internet access. Printed copies are accessible from the respective printers for a fee.

The objective of these websites is to make legal instruments available to the public on demand.

Local Resources

Several local resources try to promote accessibility. Most of these resources provide Acts of Parliament and recent Sis. However, very few of them track SIs and have up-to-date versions of them. The top resources locally include Optima Legal (a paid service) and Veritas Zimbabwe (a free website). These resources are updated frequently with copies of the latest legal instruments. The Optima service goes a step further by updating its own version of the principal Act or SI so that users can see a consolidated version complete with references, as opposed to opening different versions and trying to relate them.

Digitisation and regular update

The Law Reviser and the LDC need better resources to have all legislation available and amended to its latest consolidated version. This is in the public interest. It makes decision-making easier for public stakeholders, including companies, investors, and people in general.

There is a maxim that says, ignorance of the law is no defence. The best way to cure any such ignorance is to make the law accessible.

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Mike Murenzvi writes in his personal capacity and his views are not associated with any organisation he is, or may be, affiliated with