10 rules to writing clear legal language

Meredith Thatcher | November 30, 2016

One keynote speaker at the Clarity2016 conference was the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, of New South Wales, Australia. Kirby is the Patron of Clarity International, which plays a vital role in promoting the use of plain legal language globally. Kirby titled his session: Clarity in legal language in English: Is it possible?

Why is English so complex?

Kirby gave some explanations for why the English language is so complex. One explanation is its dual nature. As Kirby notes:

The basic explanation is the dual character of the English language. We speak as our Anglo-Saxon ancestors did — in a Germanic tongue. But we write as the clerks to the Norman Kings wrote — in a Franco-Latin way. This difference between the ‘language of the kitchen’ and the language of the office or courthouse lies at the heart of the often needless complexity of official English.

Then he explored efforts to inject greater clarity into the notoriously troublesome area of legal prose. Examples include legislative texts and the language of judicial reasons.

What 10 rules can lawyers use to write simply and clearly?

Kirby believes that getting lawyers to write simply and clearly involves observing 10 rules.

  1. Begin complex documents with a summary.
  2. Use plenty of full stops.
  3. Pay attention to layout and headings. Use lots of subheadings and white space.
  4. Use vertical lists to separate important points.
  5. Use sentences of short-to-medium length.
  6. Start the second sentence with a reprise of the end of the first sentence.
  7. Use linking words.
  8. Prefer the active voice to the passive voice.
  9. Use verb phrases rather than noun phrases.
  10. Prefer Germanic ‘words of the kitchen’ to French ‘words of the court’.
  11. Delete unnecessary words.

Kirby believes these 10 rules should be taught in legal offices, in lecture rooms at law schools, and in government departments.

The challenge to write legal language clearly is urgent and important. After all, as Kirby notes, we don’t want to be ‘stuck for centuries with obscure precedents immortalised by computer technology’.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.