Law: Policy paper
What is a policy paper?
A policy paper or brief (sometimes called a policy memo) is an advocacy tool which is typically used to influence change on a broader scale. The writer’s aim is to engage and persuade a target audience, usually non-specialist, that your proposed solution to a contemporary issue is practical, credible and necessary to create positive change. A policy paper in law is usually advocating for reform in a particular area of the law.
What is the purpose of a policy paper?
In law, the purpose of a policy paper is to convince a policy maker to advocate changing course on a specific policy issue. Governments often call for public submissions when they conduct an inquiry into a certain area of law, or amend or bring in new legislation. You might find a policy paper/brief is referred to as a "policy submission", indicating that the document is submitted to the policy maker for consideration.
How to write a policy paper
A policy paper differs slightly from a typical essay. Ordinarily, a policy paper should start with both an introduction that includes an executive summary. The introduction/executive summary will give a short overview of each section of your paper to enable the committee members to quickly understand the main points of your submission, including any recommendations and proposals for reform.
However, you must carefully check your assignment instructions to see whether a particular structure is specified. Sometimes you are asked to write your policy submission in essay format, with an introduction, body and conclusion, with minimal use of lists or bullet points, and sometimes you may need to address the paper/submission to a particular person.
Your introduction should introduce your background and interest in the issue and how and why it affects either the community you represent or your client groups. It is a good idea to include a brief overview of the issue, your proposed solution, and its necessity before moving on to the substantive sections.
The body of your paper should address the terms of reference for the review or specific consultation questions. These will be outlined in your assessment instructions. You should address each term of reference one by one, providing research and case studies on the one hand and recommendations on the other.
Use headings and subheadings to make your policy paper easier to read.
While Plain English is considered to be critical in all forms of assessment, it is perhaps most important in policy papers/briefs. Policy papers are usually created for a policy maker who has a stake in the issue that you are discussing. It is always best to consult with your lecturer to determine the target audience of your policy paper. However, it is generally best to write clearly and concisely using minimal legal jargon and providing relevant and compelling reasons as to why your proposed recommendations would help resolve the issues described in the terms of reference.
The best submissions are concise, targeted and relevant. They address the terms of reference, draw on relevant evidence (which may include case studies and statistics), and outline not only what the issues are but how problems can be addressed, as the policy maker looks to submissions for ideas to make recommendations.
Submissions should be persuasive in tone. Your submission will be more compelling if you use strong and direct statements to put forward your case, i.e. ‘the legislation should be amended to include …’, rather than ‘it is submitted that the government should consider making changes to the legislation.’ This will require you to form a well-researched and defensible opinion on one of the focus areas. It is not a merely explanatory piece of work – it must take and argue a position.
When writing a policy paper you should use a conventional citing and referencing system such as AGLC consistently throughout the paper. A specific style may be required for some assignments, so make sure you read your assignment instructions carefully.
You can find more information about citing using AGLC on the citing and referencing page.
Examples and resources of policy papers/submissions
There are many examples of policy papers online. Please note that these are examples only. Some may be submissions to law reform bodies, others may be called policy papers or briefs. It is important to follow the assignment instructions given by your lecturer. The examples below are policy submissions to the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Australian Law Reform Commission: ‘ALRC submission: NT Law Reform Inquiry into the mandatory sentencing and community-based sentencing options.’
Australian Law Reform Commission: ‘ALRC submission: Inquiry into the indefinite detention of people with cognitive and psychiatric impairment in Australia.’
Australian Law Reform Commission, ‘Making a submission’
Federation of Community Legal Centres, ‘The Change Toolkit’
Catherine F. Smith, Writing public policy : a practical guide to communicating in the policy making process (Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2016).
Australian National University - Academic skills, 'Policy brief'
Sources of evidence to support your policy paper
The following resources are a selection of databases which may be useful as a starting point. As always, you will need to evaluate and assess your results and their relevance to your research.
Guidance for finding Acts, Bills, Explanatory Memoranda and Second Reading Speeches can be found on the Legislation tab on our Law Library Guide.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics
- SACStat (Sentencing Advisory Council Statistics)
- data.gov.au (Australian Government data)
- Crime Statistics Agency (Victoria)
- NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research
- Western Australia Police Force - Crime statistics
- Queensland Government Statistician's Office - Crime statistics and research
- Queensland Police Service - Maps and Statistics
- Department of the Attorney -General and Justice (NT) - Criminal justice statistics
- ACT Policing - Crime statistics and data
- Analysis and Policy Observatory
Key resources to support evidence-informed policy and practice in Australia. APO hosts and provides free access to a wide range of grey literature, data, journal articles and books, audio and video and online resources.
Access case studies from the advanced search option. Scroll down to the heading 'Document type' and tick the 'Case studies' box. Enter keywords and perform your search.
- Public Impact Observatory
A unique database of public policy case studies. Analysis on public policy succeeding or failing is provided, drawing out the key lessons for future policy work.
- Sage Research Method Online
Researchers can explore various research methods and results, including case studies, social policy and public policy.