Simplifying legalese

Eric Bakovic at Language Log has a post on legalese. He refers to a short radio piece on npr reporting that many jurors are confused by the language of jury instructions.

bq. Numerous studies show that jurors are confused by the legal instructions given to them on how to decide a person’s guilt or innocence. So, California is simplifying them, but not everyone likes the changes.

The question is how simple the instructions are to become, and whether those simplifying them are doing more harm than good.

California’s instructions won’t be ready till spring 2005, but some other states have already simplified theirs. A legal problem is that many instructions (they vary from crime to crime) have been fought out and defined in case law, and if the rephrased instructions are erroneous, a case may have to be retried.

The rewriting task force is headed by an appeals judge, Carol Corrigan. who speaks briefly. She says Latin and law French need to be simplified, hence ‘mitigating circumstances’ becomes ‘factors that make the crime less worthy of punishment’ – but that is neither brief (people’s attention spans are said to be short) nor accurate, is it? Does it not mean ‘reasons to reduce the punishment’?

The programme also quoted an English professor, Laurie Rozakis, author of ‘English Grammar for the Utterly Confused’:

bq. I’m a very big proponent of clear, direct, simple prose. […] Make it communicative; make it communicate quickly and easily — especially when someone’s life is at stake.

Bakovic concludes:

bq. Movements to “simplify” legalese are popping up all over the place, and have already made inroads in some states (according to this NPR piece). Is there a linguist involved in any of these movements? I sure hope so.

The previous Language Log post, by Mark Liberman, also deals with legal language and is worth reading, but I can’t understand it myself and am going to drink some coffee.

5 thoughts on “Simplifying legalese

  1. Maybe there IS a linguist – even with an English-sounding surname – involved.

    Pity there are no co-ordinated language-simplification efforts throughout the English-speaking legal world – and for both criminal and civil terminology. In England & Wales, the piecemeal efforts have concentrated on the language of civil justice, whereas some Norman French-derived criminal justice terms can be traced all the way back to 1066.

    As with the near-ditched German spelling reforms, old terminology has a habit of popping back up, to wit ‘statement of truth’ isn’t really ousting ‘affidavit’ amongst UK lawyers.

  2. On my first sentence, I – tongue-in-cheek – wouldn’t say Prof. Rozakis, Liberman and Lord Woolf are typical English-sounding surnames lay people would immediately associate with the reform of one part of the English language.

  3. Ah! And yourself?!
    I remember making a slip of the tongue when telling a class about Lord Woolf. Instead of saying, ‘When he became a lord’, I said, ‘When he became a wolf’.

  4. Being a modest hypocrite, I left my own name out of it.

    The Eng. & Wales Law Society’s Guardian Gazette 30 years ago censored a non-PC reference I made – in a published letter – to the German origins of Solicitor & Prof. Michael Zander’s fishy surname (pike-perch).

    Woof, woof!

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