Reversing the damaging effects of legalese

8 June 2018

Despite over 30 years since the global plain English movement began in earnest, many legal documents in Australia are still incomprehensible to most of us. In some cases, even judges and experienced lawyers have difficulty understanding them.

Yet, if we are to follow and practise the law, most people agree these very laws need to be clear, not obscure. If we are to sign a contract or any other legal document, we must clearly understand what we are signing.If organisations are to comply with regulations, staff must clearly understand what their compliance obligations are. If ‘ignorance of the law’ cannot be used as an excuse, then laws must be easy to understand for those inside and outside the legal profession.

Plain legal English is not ‘dumbing down’

Plain English refers to clear, concise language that is focused on the needs of the reader. Plain legal English is simply the techniques of plain language applied in a legal context. Plain legal English does not require the abandonment of strict legal concepts. The principles of plain language can be applied to any document whether it be a one-page letter to a customer or client or a 200-page contract.

Plain English in the law is not a new concept. Way back in 1987, the Victorian Law Reform Commission published their Plain English and the Law report. The report was republished in 2017 and is now available online.

Following publication of this report, some plain English techniques became standard practice for legal writers across Australia. These include writing short-to-medium length sentences, preferring the active to the passive voice, and dispensing with unnecessary words. Yet ‘legalese’ is still prevalent in many areas of the law, including workplace awards, regulations and contracts.

Writing in plain English does not come naturally to many people

There may be any number of reasons why legalese persists, despite these efforts at language reform. Many lawyers still believe that documents written in plain English either compromise the integrity of the legal meaning, or undermine the professional image they want to project. There is a strong body of evidence that shows that plain legal language actually increases access to justice and removes legal risks for clients, as well as removes legal, commercial and reputational risks for organisations.

Another reason for the slow uptake of plain legal English may be that for many lawyers, writing a plain English document with just the right tone, is often more challenging than writing complex, ‘old school’ legal language. Your organisation may have a writing style guide that tells your lawyers to use active rather than passive voice. But unless lawyers and other personnel have been taught the difference between these two voices, they will not be aware which voice they are using, let alone how to change passive voice to active.

The Concise Writing Consultancy solution

If your legal team is short of time, or they are not sure how to get rid of all those unnecessary words or convert passive voice to active, a Concise Writing Consultancy specialist plain legal English writer can help. The combination of our rewriter’s legal qualifications and plain legal English writing skills gives you peace of mind that your document remains rigorous, yet clear and concise.

When Concise Writing Consultancy writers or editors rewrite a document in plain English, we aim to ensure organisational efficiency by avoiding the need for a client or customer to phone asking for an explanation. We adopt a professional yet approachable tone so that your written communications are not alienating or confusing your readers. We focus on building trust with your clients or the public, by making sure you don’t appear to be hiding behind complex and obscure language. To enhance your professional image, we also check that your document is free from grammatical and typographical errors.

Need help converting complex documents to plain English? Contact us today to arrange a free plain English consultation. Call 02 9238 6638 today.

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