Mind our Words Redux

Speak plainly.

By Dean R P Edwards

It’s not often that an amateur scribe like your humble author receives free, unsolicited advice on his writing. But Mr Robert Angyal of Queen’s Counsel has come to the aid – in this instance – of my Queen’s English!

His tool: Plainglish (“Plain English” for the uninitiated — OK, that’s my term; check out Robert’s earlier post on lawyers’ lexicon). The patient: a blog post of mine and middling quality (I said I was humble) from 19 June 2015, which is republished here, in the left-hand column below.

Wielding with deft precision the fine cut of the scribal scalpel, Robert has trimmed the verbiage from my textually beleaguered post to expose the lean, plain English beneath. As The Bard would have written, “If it were said when ’tis said, then ’twere well it were said plainly.

The challenge: could I make Robert’s translation of English any plainer? The task may be in the offing…

Without further ado, New Lawyer English presents “Mind Our Words Redux, or, Two Variations on a Theme of Plainglish”. Enjoy.

“Mind Your Words”
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 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 up in nineteenth century turns of phrase to be concise and constructive. (Although lawyers 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.

Translation into Plain English
By Robert Angyal QC

You might not have realised that lawyers speak more than one language. They speak English and, also, a very peculiar dialect of English that I call Law.The law consists of rules and procedures, which must be expressed in precise language. Because of this, when lawyers speak in Law to other lawyers, or make legal arguments, they consciously try to be precise. They choose words and structure sentences with care. Sometimes, they use old French and Latin terms that have specific meanings in Law.

Lawyers must be aware that, while it’s OK to speak Law to other lawyers, non-lawyers might not understand Law.

This awareness is critically important for lawyers when dealing with clients. Most clients don’t speak Law and thus are blissfully ignorant of the meaning of Law phrases like propounding the contract or balancing probative value against prejudice. Because of this, it requires skill to talk to non-Law speakers in terms they can understand.

There are two skills needed to translate Law into plain English: (1) expressing technical ideas concisely and constructively; and (2) (while barristers look sharp in their 19th-century costumes) avoiding dressing up our language in 19th-century turns of phrase. While consciously translating Law for non-lawyers is challenging, it produces a particularly valuable additional benefit: It can make Law itself more clear and thus more accessible to non-lawyers.

I recently had a chance to test whether this theory worked in 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. The classes were an hour long, given weekly for seven weeks. In the time available, we covered as much ground as possible, from basic legal questions (such as how law is made in Australia) to complex concepts of commercial, criminal and international law.

Usually between 20 and 30 students turned up. Very few of them had a legal background. With a team of English tutors to help them, the students enjoyed immersing themselves not only in English but also – once it was made plain and approachable – in the language of the law.

Everyone deserves to understand how the legal system works and to have access to it. So, for non-lawyers, experiences of this sort are very important. The lawyers involved honed our ability to translate Law into English. Given the highly technical principles and reasoning involved, this was no small feat! As a result, the experience was equally instructive and rewarding for us.

The take-away lesson? The more conscious we lawyers are of the need to communicate clearly, the better we can relate to non-lawyers and satisfy our professional duty to the public.