Legal English

Legal English

Legal English is the style of English used by lawyers and other legal professionals in the course of their work. It has particular relevance when applied to the drafting of written material, including:

* legal documents: contracts, licences etc
* court pleadings: summonses, briefs, judgments etc
* laws: Acts of parliament and subordinate legislation, case reports
* legal correspondence

Legal English has traditionally been the preserve of lawyers from English-speaking countries (such as the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) which have shared common law traditions. However, due to the spread of English as the predominant language of international business, as well as its role as a legal language within the European Union, legal English is now a global phenomenon.

Historical development

Modern legal English is based on standard English. However, it contains a number of unusual features. These largely relate to terminology, linguistic structure, linguistic conventions, and punctuation, and have their roots in the history of the development of English as a legal language.

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Anglo-Norman French became the official language of legal proceedings in England for a period of nearly 300 years. Consequently, many words in common use in modern legal English are derived from what evolved into Law French. These include "property, estate, chattel, lease, executor," and "tenant". The use of Law French during this period has an enduring influence on the general linguistic register of modern legal English. It also accounts for some of the complex linguistic structures employed in legal writing.

During the period mentioned above, Latin remained the language of formal records and statutes. However, since only the learned were fluent in Latin, it never became the language of legal pleading or debate. The influence of Latin can be seen in a number of words and phrases such as "ad hoc, de facto, bona fide, inter alia," and "ultra vires" , which remain in current use in legal writing.

In 1356, the Statute of Pleading was enacted, which stated that all legal proceedings should be conducted in English (but recorded in Latin).

Also, the system of law inherited by the English-speaking nations, the common law, is based on tradition, and, for the most part of its history, was never written down, and still, to some extent, remains uncodified. Another consideration is that the fundamental law of the two major powers of the English speaking world, the United Kingdom and the United States, was established long before the fundamental laws of most civil law nations, and therefore, many documents of present legal importance were written in archaic English. Further, legal English is useful for its dramatic effect, to scare those non-lawyers uninitiated into legal circles: for example, a subpoena compelling a witness to appear in court often ends with the archaic threat "Fail not, at your peril"--what the "peril" is isn't described (being arrested and held in contempt of court) but the formality of the language tends to better put a chill down the spine of the recipient of the subpoena than a simple statement like "We can arrest you if you don't show up."

David Crystal (2004) explains a stylistic influence upon English legal language. During the Medieval period lawyers used a mixture of Latin, French and English. To avoid ambiguity lawyers often offered pairs of words from different languages. Sometimes there was little ambiguity to resolve and the pairs merely gave greater emphasis, becoming a stylistic habit. This is a feature of legal style that continues to the present day. Examples of mixed language doublets are: "breaking and entering" (English/French), "fit and proper" (English/French), "lands and tenements" (English/French), "will and testament" (English/Latin). Examples of English only doublets are: "let and hindrance", "have and hold."

Key features

As noted above, legal English differs from standard English in a number of ways. The most important of these differences are as follows:

* Use of terms of art. Legal English, in common with many other professional languages variations, employs a great deal of terminology that has a technical meaning and is not generally familiar to the layman (e.g. "waiver, restraint of trade, restrictive covenant, promissory estoppel").

* Extensive use of words and phrases derived from French and Latin.

* Use of ordinary words in apparently peculiar contexts. For example, the familiar term "consideration" refers, in legal English, to contracts, and means, "an act, forbearance or promise by one party to a contract that constitutes the price for which the promise of the other party is bought" (Oxford Dictionary of Law). Other words often used in peculiar contexts in legal English include "construction, prefer, redemption, furnish, hold," and "find".

* Lack of punctuation. One of the most unusual aspects of old-fashioned legal drafting – particularly in conveyances and deeds – is the almost complete lack of punctuation. This arose from a widespread belief among lawyers and judges that punctuation was unimportant and potentially confusing, and that the meaning of legal documents should be gathered solely from the words used and the context in which they were used. In modern legal drafting, punctuation is (or should be) used for the same reason as it is used in ordinary writing – to give clarification about meaning.

* Use of doublets and triplets. There is a curious historical tendency in legal English to string together two or three words to convey what is usually a single legal concept. Examples of this include "null and void, fit and proper, perform and discharge, dispute, controversy or claim," and "promise, agree and covenant". Such constructions must be treated with caution, since sometimes the words used mean, for practical purposes, exactly the same thing ("null and void"); and sometimes they do not quite do so ("dispute, controversy or claim").

* Unusual word order. At times, the word order used in legal documents appears distinctly strange. For example, "the provisions for termination hereinafter appearing" or "will at the cost of the borrower forthwith comply with the same". There is no single clear reason explaining this phenomenon, although the influence of French grammatical structures is certainly a contributing factor.

* Use of unfamiliar pro-forms. For example, "the same, the said, the aforementioned" etc. The use of such terms in legal texts is interesting since very frequently they do not replace the noun – which is the whole purpose of pro-forms – but are used as adjectives to modify the noun. For example, "the said John Smith".

* Here-, there- and where- words. Words like "hereof, thereof," and "whereof" (and further derivatives, including "-at, -in, -after, -before, -with, -by, -above, -on, -upon" etc) are not often used in ordinary English. They are used in legal English primarily as a way of avoiding the repetition of names of things in the document – very often, the document itself. For example, "the parties hereto" instead of "the parties to this contract".

* "-er, -or," and "-ee" name endings. Legal English contains a large number of names and titles, such as employer and employee, or lessor and lessee, in which the reciprocal and opposite nature of the relationship is indicated by the use of alternative endings. This practice derives from Latin.

* Use of phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs play a large role in legal English, and are often used in a quasi-technical sense. For example, "parties enter into contracts, put down deposits, serve" [documents] "upon other parties, write off debts", and so on.

Legal English education

Due to the prevalence of the English language in international business relations, as well as its role as a legal language within the European Union, a feeling has existed for a long period in the international legal community that traditional English language training is not sufficient to meet lawyers’ English language requirements. The main reason for this is that such training generally ignores the ways in which English usage may be modified by the particular demands of legal practice – and by the conventions of legal English as a separate branch of English in itself.

As a result of this, non-native English speaking legal professionals and law students are increasingly seeking specialist training in legal English, and such training is now provided by a number of firms which focus exclusively on legal language.

ee also

* Legal writing
* Legal doublet

References and further reading

* " [http://www.cambridge.org/elt/legalenglish/ International Legal English] ", written by Amy Krois-Lindner and TransLegal, is a coursebook for Cambridge ESOL’s International Legal English Certificate.

* David Crystal's "The Stories of English" (Penguin Books, 2004), Part 7.4.

* Bryan Garner’s "Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage" (Oxford University Press) is regarded as an authoritative guide to legal language, and is aimed at the practising lawyer.

* Peter Butt and Richard Castle’s "Modern Legal Drafting" is a reference book aimed at the practising lawyer.

* Mark Adler’s "Clarity for Lawyers" (2nd edn, The Law Society, 2006).

* " [http://www.forum-legal.com/docubase.htm#cavendish Legal English] " (2004) by [http://www.forum-legal.com/people.htm Rupert Haigh] and published by Routledge.

* Maria Fraddosio, "New ELS: English for Law Students" (Naples, Edizioni Giuridiche Simone, 2008) is a course book for Italian University Students.

* The " [http://www.forum-legal.com/docubase.htm# oxford Oxford Handbook of Legal Correspondence] " (2006) by [http://www.forum-legal.com/people.htm Rupert Haigh] and published by Oxford University Press.

* For a humorous perspective on legalese, see Daniel R. White's "Still The Official Lawyer's Handbook" (NY: Plume/Penguin 1991), Chapter 13, pp. 171-176, especially its notorious riff on how a lawyer might edit -- and torture -- the phrase "The sky is blue" (pp. 172-174). Similarly, see Professor Fred Rodell's "Goodbye to Law Reviews," whose opening lines contain the classic statement of the problem: "There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content." (This and other articles are collected in "Trials and Tribulations -- An Anthology of Appealing Legal Humor", edited by Daniel R. White (NY: Plume/Penguin 1991), p. 241.

* Procter and Gamble Corp. www.pg.com. 2007.

* vlex co. 'Hoke v. United States' 2007


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