Legal Language in English

Pascale Chauvot

16 Jun 2010

Legal language in English is often referred to as ‘legalese’. This implies that there are lexical and grammatical differences which make this type of English distinct. Many of the differences between legal English and general or business English have come about as a result of its origins and history. We will look at this aspect in the first part of the post. The second part will focus on some of these lexical and grammatical differences and the final section will concentrate on the move to render legal English more comprehensible.

Legal English has French and Latin influences. William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became king of England. William and his followers spoke a type of French and their legal documents were written in Latin. Latin was replaced by French as the dominant legal language around 1275, which in turn gave way to English under the Statute of Pleading in 1362.

Even though a lot of Latin words and phrases still exist in legal English, it was the French language which had a greater influence. This situation is also true in the United Sates. Even though the Americans won independence from Britain, they did not change the Legal language the British had established in their country.

Here is a list of some of the Latin terms and maxims that are used in legal English.

A lot of them are also common in general English. As well as having lexical differences from other forms of English, Legal English can also use grammar in a special way. At times, it even seems to have its own grammatical rules. Here is an example of a sentence whose word order would appear to have French origins: ‘the provisions for termination hereinafter appearing or will at the cost of the borrower forthwith comply with the same’

Another example concerning grammar is the fact that legal documents are written in the present tense although they refer to the future: not “the mortgagee will agree to lend the sum of £ 20,000” but “the mortgagee agrees to lend the sum…”

These linguistic ‘difficulties’ have led to the creation of the lobby group ‘the Plain English Campaign’. This movement became important in the 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order that required Federal regulations be “as simple and clear as possible”. Likewise, in the new rules of civil procedure which were introduced in 1999 in England, some changes in the Legal English used were noticeable. Such terms as: subpoena, in camera, writ and plaintiff now have simpler alternatives (witness summons, private hearing, claim form and claimant).

Although some changes have been made, Legal English still remains a form of English that is difficult for people who have English as a second language to understand. It is therefore both logical and extremely important that all professional people who have dealings in any way with legal documents or legal matters in English, should attend a specialized Legal English course. This type of course is offered by such organisations as the Culture and Communication Skills Consultancy, Communicaid.

 



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