The Case for Plain English
Throughout my 5 years at law school I continually asked myself one question: why can’t these guys just write in plain English? In case you’re wondering, I’m referring to legal academics and other legal writers.
Back then while at law school, these writers of legal academia were high up, high away minds who I thought were furthering man’s inquiry and the development of the law.
But nowadays I see these high away people as something different. I see them as a community who use big words, jargon, double-talk and dense legalese not to bring about clarity, but to obfuscate and simply make things difficult for people in the pursuit of their own obscure personal pleasure.
George Orwell in his 1946 text, Why I Write wrote that man is driven to write by 4 core impulses. The first of which is egoism. However this is where I feel in many instances, legal academics and other legal writers stop.
And unfortunately, since impressionable students at law school are taught by legal academics who write in fluffy and flowery English, those students often carry on in that fluffy English tradition. A tradition which of course is then carried into professional practice, which then makes things very difficult for the layperson who seeks assistance from the said lawyer.
Matthew Salzwedel is a practicing attorney and writer for the lawyerist.com who writes about legal writing (you can read a compendium of his work here). He often criticises the lawyer’s habit and predisposition towards an uneconomical use of language.
In a recent article Matthew Salzwedel provided a beautiful example which captured the sheer confusion that badly written legal texts can cause.
- Before: “This Summary does not purport to be complete and is qualified in its entirety by the more detailed information contained in the Proxy Statement and the Appendices hereto, all of which should be carefully reviewed.”
- After: “Because this is a summary, it does not contain all the information that may be important to you. You should read the entire proxy statement and its appendices carefully before you decide how to vote.”
Mr Salzwedel interestingly noted in the same article that a number of barristers and solicitors in England founded in 1983 a group called Clarity which was “opposed to archaic, over-complicated legal language.”
And that’s where I stand: I want the law explained in as few words as possible and, as clearly as possible. For some reason legal academics, writers and lawyers by their creed are just drawn like a mouth to light towards grand words and phrases and convoluted sentences and paragraphs. They have the mind-set that they’re crafting something special, something that makes them better. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Realistically, for the good of the profession and in the interest of the public and public representatives, lawyers and academics of all stripes need to adopt the use of plain English. It’s as plain and simple as that.