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No one’s at ease with legalese
May 16, 2013


The language of lawyers isn’t easy to understand. Lawyers themselves admit this.
Cambridge explains that legal language is complex for very good reasons. It must apply to specific cases at the same time as it’s forced to relate to general law. Also, it requires enough stability to endure for many years, and, it must show the intention of the law. Cambridge says, “No other variety of language has to carry such a responsibility.”
Nevertheless, most people struggle with legalese, something that would be true even if all the Latin were removed from it. This fact is hazardous for lawyers and clients alike. In 1983, the client of an English law firm was awarded £93,000 because “obscure” advice misled the client.
Much fun has been poked at legalese. Entire books have been written mocking legal language. Here’s an excerpt from, The Legal Guide to Mother Goose, by D. Sandburg: “The party of the first part, hereinafter known as Jack, and the party of the second part, hereinafter known as Jill, ascended or caused to be ascended an elevation of undetermined height and degree of slope, hereinafter referred to as ‘hill.’”
Humourists aren’t alone in decrying incomprehensible legal language. Richard Thomas, writing in Britain’s Statute Law Review, says, “Complexity brings contempt for the law, for Parliament and for democracy itself.”
Cambridge quotes Steven Weissman, faculty of law, University of California at Berkeley: “I have in my time read millions of words from the pens of judges and, despite my professional interest in them, I have rarely failed to experience a sense of defeat or even pain.”
In 1979, as a backlash against legalese, the Plain English Campaign emerged. The campaign is a U.K. organization devoted to fighting jargon and confusing language. Plain English kicked off with the public shredding of government forms in London’s Parliament Square.
Great results ensued. Within six years of that first demonstration, more than 2100 government forms were revised. U.S. Presidentn Jimmy Carter ordered government regulations written in clear English. Sadly, Ronald Reagan rescinded that order. But in 1998, Bill Clinton required all government agencies to use plain English.
In the U.K., annual Plain English awards are presented. At the same time, the worst offenders against Plain English find themselves on the “Shame List.”
In 1990, Britain’s Law Society produced a manual called, Clarity of Lawyers. As well, in 2009, The Oxford Guide to Plain English was published. The oldest such text is Richard C. Wydick’s, Plain English for Lawyers. Dr. Wydick, who retired in 2007 from the faculty of law, University of California at Davis, wrote the text in 1978. It’s now in its fifth edition.
In Canada, we have Clear Language and Design (CLAD) which defines itself as, “A way of creating documents that communicate clearly.” CLAD asserts that many people are excluded from using printed materials because of the way they’re written and designed.
Let’s end with Groucho Marx: “The judiciary expenditures of this year has not exceeded the fiscal year ... This procedure is problematic and with nullification will give us a subsidiary indictment and priority” (Animal Crackers, 1928).