Some of Legal English’s main traits
Legal writing in English has developed over hundreds of years and is characterized by lexical, grammatical and, specifically, syntactic features.
Violeta Januleviciene and Sigita Rackeviciene
The English legal language has different genres, each with its own particularities. On one extreme we have the spoken exchanges that occur in a court, to the specific language that is employed in the official documentation between entities, and government officials, and laws drafted by the legislators. In this short essay four main traits of the legal language
Formality is one of the main traits of Legal English. It reflects the serious and technical nature of legal issues, and it helps to ensure that legal documents and discourse are clear, precise, and professional. This formality entails that the sentences have a complex language structure, the use of personal pronouns is discouraged and there is a substantial lack of colloquial terms.
The use of formal language evokes several benefits. Such as:
- Clarity: The use of this type of language, legal documents and conversations may convey complex concepts and ideas, in a clear and precise way. Consequently, it avoids misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
- Professionalism: Formal language conveys a sense of professionalism and expertise, particularly important in the legal field. Since the stakes are often high, and there are serious consequences when mistakes are made.
- Objectivity: the importance of formality in law, is that decisions are based on the letter of the law, instead of on personal opinions. Legal English is structured so that it transmits impartial and objective tone.
However, the formality practiced in legal English has a few drawbacks, that it's important to be aware of:
- Complexity: this type of language can be difficult to understand, especially for non-experts, not familiar with legal terminology. It may become incomprehensible for someone who has never encountered such language, Januleviciene and Rackeviciene (2011) give an excellent example of such legal sentences:
"The Lord Chancellor may, with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, by order made by statutory instrument designate any county court as a patents county court and confer on it jurisdiction (its "special jurisdiction") to hear and determine such descriptions of proceedings ... (Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, Section 287(1))."
- Distance: it creates a sense of distance between both participants, the writer, and the reader, making it difficult to be engaged. This is achieved through the professional intention to write in an impersonal manner.
- Inflexibility: to be precise and unambiguous, legal language may become so rigid and inflexible that it precludes legal documents from adapting to changing circumstances.
In conclusion the major drawback from the formality that prevails in legal English is that y hinders the accessibility of the lay man. It is important that when we write legal documents, we do not prevent others from understanding what they are reading.
Formality is accompanied with another key element of legal English: precision. Precision means that the words that are used are exact and correct to convey the meaning desired.
The high degree of precision in this language is necessary so that clarity can be ensured. This trait is needed so that legal documents are unambiguous and minimize the risk of misinterpretation. Mistakes may ensure grave consequences. The main drawback one may find, is like the one that formality carries, it makes the system rigid, distant and impersonal.
Precision is one of the greatest assets of the legal English language, considering it helps to minimize the risk of misinterpretation and ensures that legal agreements and contracts are understood by all parties involved.
Refers to the special terminology that is used in Legal English, which describes laws, legal concepts, and procedures. It is often technical, precise and formal. It can be difficult for non-lawyers to understand. The following phrases are examples of latinate and French origin words, that are part of this special terminology.
- "Pro bono" is latinate and it signifies "for the public good". In the current legal context is means that the legal services that are provided by lawyers will be without charge, to individuals who cannot afford legal fees.
- "Res judicata" (a matter already judged), is a very interesting term that prohibits a matter that has already been adjudicated and decided by a court to be retried in a subsequent lawsuit.
The use of jargon in legal English is advantageous in several points that will be addressed shortly. The first and most prominent is that the use of jargon by legal professionals enables them to convey their meaning to others who are familiar with the terminology complex ideas and concepts. This saves time and improves the efficiency of legal discourse.
Furthermore, the use of legal jargon standardizes a set of terms that legal professionals can ensure that everyone understands the meaning , that what is being discussed is clear and unambiguous.
Finally, the words that come from Latin, or French origin have a long history and tradition in the legal field. Ristikivi explains that Latin words in law have the following traits:
- Latin words have a strong historical connection to the development of law.
- Latin has a complete and well-formed body of terminology.
Therefore they help to establish the legitimacy and authority of legal discourse.
Notwithstanding this characteristic of legal English has an important disadvantage. It conveys clear meaning to people who work in la legal profession, non-legal professionals seem to confront an insurmountable barrier.
Complex sentence structure
This is a common feature of legal English, legal documents contain long and complex sentences, that convey a lot of information in a concise manner. These documents deal with complex concepts, legal principles, and very importantly with nuanced distinctions.
These long sentences often contain multiple clauses, which are connected by coordinating conjunctions or subordinating conjunctions. Sentences that are written to express conditions, exceptions, or qualifications, that are paramount when we interpret the document.
In Wiredu's (2016) words:
The complex sentence is the overwhelming choice in the law reports […]. First, this type of sentence allows for the pile-up of information. Secondly, it allows for information ranking. In other words, the preferred pattern of information expansion is hypotactic. Not only has information been tightly packaged in these law reports, but the information units have also been hierarchically organized.
The use of complex sentences serves an important purpose: that the information transmitted is precise and nuanced in a formal and technical manner. It is necessary to ensure that legal documents are clear and accurate, and legally binding.
This essay strived to introduce the core traits of the English legal language. Every one of them has an important role in communicating with clarity and precision. The most important drawback that we need to contend, is that it makes it difficult for people who do not work in the legal field to understand. Lawyers and other legal professionals should strive to be formal, precise, using the correct jargon and sentence structure, without alienating other potential readers.
Dra. María Antonieta Yarringtón Morales, coordinadora del curso Inglés jurídico de la IBERO CDMX
Danet, B. (1980). Language in the Legal Process. Law & Society Review, 14(3), 445–564. https://doi.org/10.2307/3053192
Januleviciene, V., & Rackeviciene, S. (2011). Clarity versus accuracy and objectivity in written legal English/Aiskumas ir tikslumo bei objektyvumo siekis rasytineje teises anglu kalboje. COACTIVITY: Philology, Educology, 19(2), 141. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A286115054/AONE?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=a5fceb54
Kennedy, D. (1973). Legal Formality. The Journal of Legal Studies, 2(2), 351–398. https://www.jstor.org/stable/724057
Ristikivi, M. (2005). Latin: The Common Legal Language of Europe? Juridica International pp. 199-202. https://www.juridicainternational.eu/public/pdf/ji_2005_X_199.pdf
Wiredu, F. (2016) The Complex Sentence in Legal English: A Study of Law Reports. Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics ISSN 2422-8435 An International Peer-reviewed Journal Vol.22, 2016
Ződi, Z. (2019). The limits of plain legal language: understanding the comprehensible style in law. International Journal of Law in Context. 2019. 246–262. 10.1017/S1744552319000260.