• Why legal documents are not in plain and simple English


    This very interesting question about the English of lawyers was posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by member BonRuiz:

    “I hope you can enlighten me on why legal documents and contracts use too many unnecessary words that are not direct to the point and are hard to understand. Is this a lawyer’s standard procedure so only he can interpret and make money out of them?”

    I replied to BonRuiz (http://tinyurl.com/ny6y3n3) that legal documents and contracts use a language called legalese. This is the jargon of lawyers when communicating with fellow lawyers and other law practitioners. It presumes that the target audience is adequately knowledgeable with legal concepts and the legal system. To laypersons not privy to this knowledge, however, legalese would be too wordy for comfort and, very often, beyond understanding and comprehension.

    It’s too harsh to say that lawyers make legalese their SOP so only they can interpret documents or contracts and make money from them. I think the following justification for legalese by lawyer-blogger WiseGeek (http://tinyurl.com/k4jbpqj) is fairer and more levelheaded:

    “In law, words have very specific and clearly defined meanings, and lawyers are careful when drafting legal documents to say precisely what they mean, even if the meaning is only apparent to other lawyers. Some of the word use may appear unusual to people who aren’t familiar with the law, as ordinary words can have a different meaning in a legal context. For example, seemingly redundant phrasing actually isn’t, when the legal meanings of the phrase are considered.”

    But more revealing is this insight about legalese by another lawyer-blogger, SoMeLaw Thoughts (http://tinyurl.com/n57de4q):

    “Here’s one deep, dark secret about lawyers—we see risk everywhere. I can look at a picture of a man on a sidewalk and come up with a dozen potential lawsuits without batting an eye. And that’s before this hypothetical man crosses the hypothetical street. We lawyers spend years reading the most ludicrous cases you can imagine that involve chain reactions of people jumping onto moving trains, dropping bundles of fireworks that explode, and a concussive wave that tips over a large scale injuring a woman nearby (actual, famous case). It’s our job to see the worst potential outcome and help our clients avoid it.

    “So when a client comes to an attorney and says ‘Hey, can you draft up some terms for my business so that we’re protected from lawsuits?’ then the lawyer’s mind starts spinning like a rickety travelling carnival ride that was installed without inspection, has no safety restraints in the cars, and is operating at twice the recommended speed. Our minds are now racing to give our clients the best possible defense to a future lawsuit.”

    I doubt very much if it’s standard practice by lawyers to deliberately or viciously make contracts and documents wordy, roundabout, confusing—and grammatically faulty. My personal view is that legalese is simply the outcome of centuries of overcareful, overzealous, overprecise, overwrought, and overbearing formulation, implementation, interpretation, and application of the law in evolving societies. I’d say it’s a confusing language that generation after generation of lawyers have institutionalized largely for their own convenience, using quirky English and archaic legal templates.

    Would it be possible to make the English of contracts and legal documents simpler?

    I think so, and that would be such a desirable development! In recent years, in fact, there has been a growing movement in North America and in the United Kingdom to use plain and simple English not only in contracts and legal documents but also in court litigation and in legislation (http://tinyurl.com/n79ez7e), the better for laypeople to understand, appreciate, and follow the law as well as to assert their rights and fulfill their responsibilities as members of society.

    Let’s just hope that the plain English movement and legislation will soon catch on in the

    Philippines as well.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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    1. its about time to use Pilipino or Tagalog as the official language of the country. using english means colonial mentality.

      • I have no objection to that, Tom, so long as we don’t use gobbledygooky Pilipino or Tagalog in contracts and legal documents in the same abstruse, convoluted way that they are being written in English today.