By Dean Edwards
It might not occur to one, at first thought, that all lawyers are multilingual: we speak English and a very peculiar dialect that, for convenience sake, I’ll call law.
Law is as much about rules and procedure as it is about language, and we might take for granted that, besides all of the Old French and Latin jargon, lawyers speak in an English where argument and precision are deliberately reinforced in how we choose words, formulate sentences and speak to others within the legal system.
Our use of language might be by the by in our working lives, but lawyers need to be conscious of not only how language is used, but how it is understood.
This reflective practice is critically important when dealing with clients, the majority of whom live lives in blissful ignorance of the meaning of “propounding the contract”, or the balancing of “probative value” and prejudice. There is skill in talking to, and not at or above, the uninitiated.
Technicalities don’t need to be dressed in nineteenth century turns of phrase to be concise and constructive. (Although barristers do look sharp in their nineteenth century costumes.) Translation into plain English then is important. And consciously adjusting our language for the layperson has an additional and particularly valuable benefit: we can make our legal language more accessible, clearer and more democratic.
Recently, I had the opportunity to put the above into practice.
Teaching alongside fellow lawyers and legal academics in a program run by Melbourne Free University, I introduced a class of asylum seekers and refugees to core ideas in the theory and practice of law. Our material covered as much ground as a one-hour, once-a-week class can across seven weeks, starting from the basics of law in Australia (how law is made, for instance) to the finer instruments of commercial, criminal and international law.
Classes generally attracted between 20 and 30 students, and there was a team of English tutors as well. Students, the vast majority of whom had no legal background, enjoyed immersing themselves in not only English but the language of the law, made plain and approachable.
Experiences of this kind are crucial, for a general population that deserves access to legal system and an understanding of that system’s workings, and for lawyers. It was equally rewarding and instructive, as we honed our ability to translate law. No small feat when handling a highly technical craft, with its principles and reasoning!
The more reflective we are on our profession, the more we can build a relationship and uphold our responsibility to public.