Break down barriers to understanding legal writing

Jayne Dalmer | August 29, 2016

No one would argue that the Acts of Parliament that govern us, or the documents we sign, should be obscure or hard to follow.

We all prefer clear advice that’s easy to read and act on.

Avoid terms of art that keep readers apart

One barrier still getting in the way of our understanding is the use (and overuse) of terms of art. These are technical terms with precise meanings, mutually understood by lawyers — for example, ‘estoppel’, ‘in camera’, or ‘peremptory challenge’.

Lawyers writing to lawyers may find these terms useful, but for most of us they’re confusing and slow us down when we’re reading.

We might understand an individual word, but we may not know its precise meaning in a legal sense. For most readers, ‘execute’, ‘good faith’, ‘demise’, and ‘dishonour’ mean something different from the meaning lawyers give to them.

Some terms of art we may never even have heard of. I can admire the beauty of, and wonder at the pronunciation or origin of, a word like ‘estoppel’. But if I’m trying to understand my new insurance policy, it simply gets in the way.

Image, people chipping wall.

Break down barriers, one word at a time. Image by Raphael Thiemard / CC BY

Explain terms that you can’t avoid using

Lawyers writing for non-lawyers should find easier alternatives to terms of art. For example, if you’re talking about effect of estoppel, use ‘stop’ or ‘prevent’ instead:

Because of what Mr Smith said to you at the time, the law prevents him from denying it now.

If there’s no alternative, then clearly explain what you mean.

Learn more tips for modern legal writing

Clear law — from legalese to reader ease will teach you more about breaking down barriers and connecting with your readers.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.