Banish legalese with these tips

Banish legalese with these tips

By Emily Halloran

What is legalese? It is ‘the specialist and often obscure language’ used to write legal documents. Even lawyers don’t like legaleseOne study identified 4 areas that make legalese hard to read:

  • uncommon jargon
  • convoluted sentences
  • passive voice constructions
  • non-standard capitalisation.
A lawyer shows their client where to sign a contract.

How do you banish it?

Replace jargon with more common terms

Replace ‘notwithstanding’ with ‘despite’ or ‘although’. You can do this with legalese phrases too: replace ‘in the event that’ with ‘if’ or ‘when’.

Keep each sentence to just 1 idea

In this example, we have broken up a 45-word sentence into 4 sentences that the reader can understand quickly and easily.

Before: This contract, which outlines the terms and the conditions of the services to be provided by Azure Surfing and the responsibilities of both parties, will commence on 1 July 2023 and will terminate upon completion of the services or the end date, whichever comes first.

After: This contract outlines the terms for Azure Surfing’s services. It also covers your and our responsibilities.
This contract starts on 1 July 2023. It will end when Azure Surfing’s services are completed or 30 June 2024, whichever comes first.

Rewrite sentences using the active voice

If you write in the active voice, the reader can easily see who is doing what. 

Before: Payment for the aforementioned services provided will be made according to the payment schedule outlined in this contract.

After: We will pay for these services in line with the payment schedule in this contract.

 Avoid using all capitals for emphasis

Which version do you find easier to read?  ‘THIS AGREEMENT SUPERSEDES ALL PRIOR NEGOTIATIONS’  or  ‘This agreement supersedes all earlier negotiations.’ 

What’s the benefit?

There are many benefits to plain legal language: shorter, clearer contracts, increased efficiency, fewer errors and less litigation.

For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland simplified its standard supply contract and took it from 18,000 words to about 6,000 without compromising legal meaning. Apart from reducing the amount of material customers have to wade through by two-thirds, just think of the number of contract queries and clarifications the bank will avoid!

Professor Peter Butt reminds us that ‘Errors are hard to find in dense and convoluted prose.’ Simplifying legal language makes it easier to spot and fix errors, which saves businesses:

  • time (no need to redraft the contract or answer customer questions)
  • money (no need to pay someone to redraft the contract or answer customer questions).

In the early days of plain English in Australia, companies adopting plain legal language worried that it would lead to an increase in litigation about the meaning of certain words. But in fact, litigation about word meaning has decreased because plain legal language is less ambiguous.

Who can help me?

We provide premium plain English consulting and editing services that can radically improve your legal documents and transform your writing culture. From multinational businesses, state and federal government departments to not-for-profit organisations, we can help you banish legalese with effective, clear and concise communications.

Contact us to speak with one of our consultants.

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