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Importance of Legal English


By Anand Kumar Srivastava

We all know that the main purpose of a language is to communicate with others; to be able to share one’s ideas and feelings with another individual or with an audience. But the language used or employed in different professions has differences in diction, terminology, concepts and phraseology. Hence, it is important for professionals to master the language according to the need or requirements of their profession. In the same way, it is very important for a law student to enhance her knowledge of Legal English which helps her at every step, every day. The communication between lawyers and their clients, lawyers and judges, a lawyer with another lawyer needs deep insight of Legal English. The concepts of laws, understanding of judgments, drafting of a petition and preparing notes for arguments in a court need, both, understanding and fluency in Legal English. We cannot develop expertise or proficiency in legal language in a short time. We need constant and regular practice. It is often seen that students are taught courses in Communicative English rather than in Legal English in our Law Colleges. But wisdom lies in learning and teaching both types of English.

A lawyer’s most valuable and powerful weapon is the ability to play with words. We are living in the time of Globalisation. A lawyer from one country can represent a client in another country.  Hence, the mindset and approach should be trans-national or global. Almost eighty percent universities of the world are using English for teaching the law of their land. Similarly, Legislators or constituent committees are drafting laws and rules in English language so that they can be used and understood across the globe. In most of the courts, standard legal English is a mixture of English, Latin and French vocabulary. For illustration, Latin Maxims are frequently used in drafting petitions by lawyers or in delivering verdicts by juries. The understanding or interpretation of a legal document greatly depends on the understanding of legal language. Skilful use of legal English in drafting a case is always instrumental in taking the judge to a desired verdict. Legal English follows special linguistic structure, punctuation and terminology.

We know that English language covered a long journey of centuries to develop and come to its present form. In fact, every language takes a lot of time to develop. It is like a river flowing for centuries and while changing its course or routes, it adopts or picks up many new words. English language also followed this natural phenomenon and picked up numerous words from Latin and French languages and from other popular dialects. The history of English language and the development of legal English language used in courts should be seen in the light of the history of Britain. The foreign invasions and impact of French and Latin languages left an everlasting impression on the legal language of that time. Legal English also includes many words, phrases and maxims prevalent and popular in the courts of France and Spain. Most of these words continue to flow in legal English. Now they have become part and parcel of the language used in courts. In the same way, many words and expressions which are archaic or outdated in day to day English continue to hold significance in legal English.

In 1066 AD, William (Duke of Normandy) defeated Prince Harold of the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings and became the ruler of England. The race was known as Normans and they spoke French. They ruled England for three hundred years from 1066 to 1366. They left n everlasting impact on the language of England. That is how many legal terms and phraseology of French language were adopted by the English language. With the passage of time even more Normans occupied powerful positions in the courts, administration and the civil services. In 1275, a statute was passed in France. According to this statute, all proceedings of courts should be in English but they should be recorded in French. All major English language documents were translated into French. Around 1360, the power of the Normans started declining. In 1362, another statute was passed which said that all legal proceeding should be in English and their recording should also be done in English. In 1483, the First Act of Parliament came in the English language. In 1650, a law was made that all legal proceedings, legal books and verdicts should be in the English language. The previous records would also be translated in the English language. But the intermingling of French and English left a permanent influence on legal English of modern times.

A lawyer is expected to be brief, precise and to the point. There is no need to use very intricate diction or complex syntax but the point of view or argument should be explicit and crystal clear, citing the rulings and precedents in favor of the case. All this comes from proper training and experience. The foundation of this should be laid when a student is pursuing a law degree. Legal language uses pronominal adverbs and phrasal verbs very frequently. We find the use of words like hereof, thereof and whereof in Standard English. But further derivatives including -at, -in, -after, -before, -with, -above, -on, -upon are mainly used in legal English in order to avoid repeating names or phrases. The students of law have to learn very specialised terminology, structure patterns and verbal expressions which interpret the laws and rules in the right spirit and in the right place. It is not possible to argue a case effectively unless appropriate legal language is used. Many times we see lawyers using foreign phrases and expressions to interpret a legal point effectively and forcefully. In legal English, the lawyers use very long sentences in order to avoid any ambiguity and misinterpretation. This tendency is the influence of the Latin and French legal system. In the same way, we see the use of many impersonal expressions or formation of sentences. It is often seen that ordinary words have different meanings when they are used in a legal context. Legal language is a technical language and its translation is also technical. The translator has to see the available text in legal perception in order to do accurate translation or interpretation.

In recent years, we have seen a campaign by native English speakers to make legal English simple and comprehendable by the common people. However, many lawyers and jurists continue to argue that proceedings of law and spirit of the legal system would suffer if traditional terminology, phrases and verbal expressions are ignored. They do not support the “Plain English Campaign” and wish to argue their cases in the traditional manner. Hence, translators and common folk have a tough time in following court verdicts and proceedings. Old fashioned English and archaic syntax along with complicated legal expressions make things challenging.

In conclusion, we can say that knowledge of Legal English is very important for law students. It makes a significant contribution to their success on the professional front. The value of Communicative English is enhanced if a lawyer is well equipped with proficiency in legal English. Right from the beginning, law students should concentrate on language skills so that they can impress the clients, the judge and fellow professionals. The law colleges of our country should also focus on the teaching and tailoring of courses of English language which can be instrumental in the success of their students.