Friday, March 22, 2013

Law French or Plain Language?

Legalese has stumped ordinary people trying to read legal documents for centuries.

Law French was a language specifically developed for use in the English Courts in the third quarter of the thirteenth century. Part French, part archaic Anglo-Norman, with many words of Latin origin, it was a sophisticated technical language used for legal documents that were never intended to be understood by the vast majority of the English people.

Recently, we had reason to try to parse the meaning of a Law French phrase “ car est populus et serra reforme per presentment” in a Massachusetts case, 191 Mass. 78.  We turned to The Law-French Dictionary Alphabetically Digested, to which is added the Law-Latin Dictionary,  first published in London in 1701 at a time when the use of Law-French was going out of favor. It is now published in a reprint edition. Translation was difficult. For an interesting discussion of Law French, see Peter Tiersma’s Legal Language.

Fortunately, the plain language movement, exemplified by the Center for Plain Language, has made some strides in an attempt to aid lawyers in speaking with precision in language that everybody can understand. For more information about plain language, see Joseph Kimble’s Lifting the Fog of Legalese or Bryan A. Garner's Legal Writing in Plain English, available from your local Mass. Trial Court Law Libraries