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Recommendation by an Oxford University Law Professor

Recommendation by an Oxford University Law Professor


"Ordinary English language, and legal English language, have a close but complicated relationship. It is possible to be good at ordinary English but poor at legal English, and probably the reverse is true. The reason the two languages are different is that they have developed to serve needs which are separate and quite distinct; the use which a lawyer makes of the English language is specialised and peculiar to his or her profession. The dominant concern, though, is to be accurate: not mostly, but all of the time. Ordinary English allows the person speaking and writing to be imprecise and inexact; legal English does not. Legal English demands precision and pinpoint accuracy.


But even then, accuracy has a very particular meaning. Many years ago I gave a lecture at a leading firm of solicitors in London, at which I examined what appeared to be defects and other problems in the standard forms of contractual wording used in a field of commercial law. I pointed out how it would be possible to improve on the clarity, and effectiveness, of the language, and questioned why, if this were so, lawyers would persist with legal language which was not the best which could be chosen. The answer surprised me (though it probably should not have done): if the firm were to re-draft its standard contractual terms, it might suggest to the world outside that there had been something wrong with the earlier version, and this would not be helpful to anybody. This is one reason why old forms of legal English are retained and re-used and why, when the author of ‘A Practical Guide to English for Law’ advises that ‘it is not recommended to dispense with existing terms’, he is giving good advice. Being ‘inventive’ is not something which legal English encourages.


One may also note a passage from a judgment delivered twelve years ago by a very senior English judge. He made the point that English law, and English lawyers, has always taken the written word very seriously. It is assumed that when people have expressed their agreement in writing, they mean exactly what their written words say. As Lord Hobhouse put it:


‘The rule that other evidence may not be adduced to contradict the provisions of a contract contained in a written document is fundamental to the mercantile law of this country; the bargain is the document; the certainty of the contract depends on it… "When the parties have deliberately put their agreement into writing, it is conclusively presumed between themselves and their privies that they intend the writing to form a full and final statement of their intentions, and one which should be placed beyond the reach of future controversy, bad faith or treacherous memory." This rule is one of the great strengths of English commercial law and is one of the main reasons for the international success of English law in preference to laxer systems which do not provide the same certainty.’


To an English lawyer, the written word matters, and it matters far more than anything else. And it follows that accuracy in the use of English as lawyers understand it, that is, in the use of English for lawyers, is central to the success of any lawyer who seeks to express himself or herself, or a client’s intentions, in writing. Inaccuracy in the use of legal English is always unfortunate, usually expensive, and sometimes disastrous.


So how does one learn legal English? What are its rules, its usual constructions, its familiar forms of expression? The sad truth is that one cannot easily learn these things from an English lawyer. Those of us who have learned to express ourselves in legal English gained our knowledge by indirect, accidental, means: experience tends to help us to recognise what is right and to have a feel for what it wrong: but why? The formal rules which provide the framework for this usage and for these decisions, and which would allow us to explain them to others, are more problematic: we may know how to use legal English, but may not be very successful in explaining how we do it.


It may require someone who is not English by birth or by language to decode the rules by which native speakers guide themselves without really realising what they are doing. In this astonishing work of reference and instruction, Szabó László has produced an account of the rules, principles, usages and understandings of legal English which has no equivalent, certainly in England, and in all probability anywhere else in the world. It will be of great use to people needing to express themselves (or their client’s instructions, intentions and agreements) in legal English and who wish to understand how these things are usually done. For the most successful draftsman, or translator, is the person whose use of the English language attracts no attention at all. As soon as lawyers start to puzzle over or find problems with the English, trouble cannot be far away. Assured use and accurate translation is what one needs; nothing else will do. If the English is good, no-one will notice that it is there.


Although it may appear to be daunting, because of its size and seriousness of purpose, this book is reassuring in its thoroughness, in its organisation, and in its many, many illustrations of the way in which the pieces of the language of legal English are put together. It is amazing to think that, in this frantic world, anyone would have the patience, the rigour, or the skill, to compile a compendium of this kind. But Szabó László has shown that he has all of these, and all those who have the need or the opportunity to learn from, and to be reassured by, this most remarkable book, will be in his debt. It is a great honour, as well an immense pleasure, to commend this masterly work to all who may come across it."


Adrian Briggs

Professor of Private International Law

Oxford University.