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.
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.