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Legal writing in plain English: vocabulary in use

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Legalese refers to the type of complicated language used in legal documents. It is very difficult for non-lawyers to understand, and is characterised by long sentences that use more words than necessary, double negatives, the use of unfamiliar words where common ones would do just as well, archaic and formulaic expressions and the type of language used when lawyers try to provide for all imaginable events. This is in contrast to plain English, which Cheryl Stephens, author of Plain Language Legal Writing (2008), describes as “…language that is clear and understandable and as simple as the situation allows.” A well-drafted legal text is one that has been carefully written to best serve the reader.

In recent years, the plain English movement in the UK and the US has tried to encourage lawyers to avoid legalese, arguing that plain English should be used wherever possible. This movement has now spread throughout the globe, and many jurisdictions now require that legal texts be written as clearly as possible. In fact, EU guidelines say that ‘the wording of (an) Act should be clear, simple, concise and unambiguous; unnecessary abbreviations, “community jargon” and excessively long sentences should be avoided’. Many organisations and jurisdictions already recommend plain language principles, and legal writing courses at universities often stress the importance of plain language.

Legalese will be with us for the foreseeable future, and it is important to be able to read and understand documents that have not been drafted according to plain language principles. However, good lawyers know how to express themselves clearly, and understand that this benefits both the client and the law firm.

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