The Plain English Campaign has applauded efforts by the legal profession to make its Latin jargon more accessible to clients.

Nigel Hanson hears what lawyers think about the changes

'The law is a ass, a idiot,' spluttered Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist - and the profession has been battling that perception ever since.

Its image has not been helped by lawyers' love of big words, peppered with Latin and old-French phrases, when simple English would do.

Indeed, lawyers could once get by without using much English at all.

Res ipsa loquitur, res gestae, res judicata, in re, mens rea and actus reus are just a few of the seemingly endless Latin terms to befuddle clients.

Exasperation led Fred Rodell, a professor of law at Yale in the 1930s, to say there were two things wrong with almost all legal writing: 'One is its style.

The other is its content.'

Enter Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, armed with a new broom in the guise of the Civil Procedure (Modification of Supreme Court Act 1981) Order 2004.

With effect from 1 May, this statutory instrument (1033/2004) has swept away the former Latin names of the prerogative remedies.

'The orders of mandamus, prohibition and certiorari shall be known instead as mandatory, prohibiting and quashing orders respectively,' it decrees.

The move follows Lord Woolf's simplifying reforms of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998, which showed the red card to phrases such as in camera, ex parte, plaintiff and writ, and substituted plain English alternatives: in private, without notice, claimant and claim form.

The move also follows recommendations by Lord Justice Auld, published in 2001, for simplifying language and procedures in criminal courts.

Reaction has been generally positive.

David Ibbetson, professor of civil law at Cambridge University, says accuracy of meaning is the key consideration.

'While I'm sorry to see words and phrases which have been in use for centuries disappear, it isn't a matter for lamentation so long as there is a gain in clarity as a result,' he says.

'Explaining to a lay person the meaning of certiorari, clear though it was to lawyers, was not always easy.'

However, he has a few reservations about modernising legal language.

'Sometimes Latin phrases were used as a sort of shorthand for technical terms which could not be translated into simple English,' he says.

'Actus reus, for example, doesn't simply mean guilty act, and to try to translate it out of the Latin into comprehensible English would risk giving the impression that it had an ordinary language certainty.

'So we do have to be careful not to try to achieve a spurious comprehensibility at the expense of accuracy.

That said, there can be no excuse for retaining Latin terminology simply because putting it in English would demystify the whole law - like insisting on singing operas in German because the words sound so silly in translation.'

The Plain English Campaign has welcomed Latin's demise.

Chrissie Maher, its founder, has often railed against lawyers' gobbledegook.

'In our experience, the legal profession and finance industries cause the most concern,' she fumes on the campaign's Web site.

'Many companies have worked extremely hard to use plain English, but these industries will always be our most important targets.'

When the Woolf reforms were unveiled, she threatened to 'name and shame' any lawyers who continued to use jargon or Latin.

However, five years on, campaign spokesman John Lister is impressed with lawyers' progress.

He says: 'We've been generally very pleased with the changes in recent years.

People have been able to understand what's going on much better.

It's been a common-sense approach.

It's not been a legalistic debate but more of a practical exercise.'

Being too doctrinaire is unhelpful, he says.

'It's not a point of view saying "English great, Latin bad".

It's more to do with common usage,' he says.

'Alibi, for example, is a Latin phrase but it's so widely known that it's more effective than saying "a defence based on the fact that a defendant was elsewhere at the relevant time and logically could not have committed the crime".

'I don't think you could ever say that no foreign words should be allowed.

English is, after all, a hybrid language with many different influences.'

He is optimistic that lawyers will master plain English, given time - even if Lord Woolf himself was pulled up recently for uttering the words 'ex parte injunction' on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme.

'It's probably going to take a few generations to get out of the habits, but we have seen definite changes,' says Mr Lister.

'Twenty-five years ago, there was really no acceptance of the view that people should be able to understand legal arguments.

Civil servants would ask why people needed to do that.

There's perhaps been a move whereby the law is now seen as more of a public service.'

That's a view shared by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), which a spokesman says wants to make justice more accessible, having once been merely 'the Whitehall department for lawyers'.

He points out that the Civil Procedure Act 1997 states that 'any power to make or alter the civil procedure rules is to be exercised with a view to securing that...

the rules are both simple and simply expressed'.

He says: 'The rule committee is therefore removing Latin phrases where possible.

However, there may be a continuing need to retain some internationally recognised and specific terms.

An example would be claims in rem for admiralty claims.'

He adds that under the Courts Act 2003 (section 69), members of the criminal procedure rule committee are set to be appointed at the end of June with a statutory duty to draft rules in accessible language.

So what do practitioners make of the drive to quash Latin? William Whiteley, a partner at Bristol law firm Clarke Willmott who handles judicial review cases, says: 'The change from Latin is welcome, not so much because the terms themselves are confusing, but because it reduces the possibility of lawyers lapsing into jargon, to the exclusion of clients.

'I have no problem with prohibiting or quashing.

However, mandatory is an odd choice [of word] as it suggests other court orders are optional.

[The word] mandating would have expressed the idea better.'

Andrew Lockley, head of public law at Sheffield law firm Irwin Mitchell, who read classical languages at university, says Latin remains a useful shorthand between lawyers but he would never use it in front of clients.

He says he was 'taken aback' recently, in chairing two special educational needs and disability tribunals, when junior barristers resorted to Latin.

He reminded them that not everyone would understand what they were saying.

He says many administrative lawyers have been using Lord Falconer's new anglicised terms for several years, so the statutory instrument merely formalises common practice.

Alex Carruthers, partner in London family law firm Hughes Fowler Carruthers, says simpler language has also influenced family proceedings, where ancillary relief hearings now bear such simple names as 'first appointment' and 'finance dispute resolution hearing'.

'People can still be a bit confused by words like decree nisi,' he adds.

'They sometimes ask if they can re-marry at that stage.'

Peter Bolwell, a solicitor with the Crown Prosecution Service in Eastbourne, is more indignant about the language police.

Why, he asks, should lawyers be forbidden from using terms of art when many other professionals, such as surgeons, accountants and computer engineers use them freely?

Latin is used only rarely in court, he maintains, but can be useful.

'Take for example, a prima facie case,' he says.

'How could you better encapsulate that idea in English? And how many words would it take? Or functus officio - could you express that in English in anything less than a complete sentence?'

He suspects eliminating traces of the classical languages from public life is 'cultural conditioning' to ensure people 'who subsist on an intellectual diet of soap operas and game shows' do not realise their education has failed them.

Knowing your per se from your inter alia may involve laudable erudition and concision, but sometimes Latin is unhelpful.

There have long been calls to turn pro bono into an English phrase the public would understand and so recognise the work lawyers are doing for the community.

But even though Lord Woolf backed 'law for free' in a competition run by the Institute of Legal Executives, there has been no sign of any change - witness this week's National Pro Bono Week.

Then there is the international angle.

An article by a Swiss lawyer in a magazine published recently by the International Bar Association stated, seemingly without irony, that English has become the lingua franca of international legal work.

But Rupert Haigh, of Forum Legal Language Services in Helsinki, wrote to the Gazette back in March to caution against bamboozling foreign lawyers with Latin (see [2004] Gazette, 11 March, 15).

In an observation that would have tickled Dickens, he revealed that English lawyers who use per se are the butt of jokes in Finland.

For perse, in Finnish, means arse.

Nigel Hanson is a freelance journalist

Latin limerick

There was a young lawyer named Rex

With diminutive organs of sex

When charged with exposure

He said with composure

De minimis non curat lex (the law is not concerned with small things)

(Anonymous partner)