The use of plain English in law provides certainty and savings.
In 1983, the Gazette published a letter from a surveyor complaining about the difficulty of dealing with leases written in ‘legalese’ and asking if they could be written intelligibly.
The solicitor to Rugby town council replied, suggesting that anyone interested in forming an organisation devoted to plain legal English should write to him with a £5 subscription. They did. The organisation was Clarity.
Clarity now has members in more than 30 countries, working mostly in English but also Swedish, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. Members include lawyers, judges, teachers, linguists, translators and anyone interested in Clarity’s defining aim: to promote plain legal language. Members share knowledge and experience of bringing clarity to law, through Clarity’s journal, website, international conferences and local meetings.
We have watched, and sometimes contributed to, some great progress over the last 30 years. The highlight of our 2010 conference was the passing of the Plain Writing Act in the US. All federal government agencies must write every document in plain English. These documents must be clear, concise, well organised, and appropriate to the subject and audience. Sadly, the act does not apply to regulations.
Here in the UK, parliamentary counsel are in the middle of their Good Law project, which began last year and aims to find new ways to reduce complexity in legislation.
In UK contract law, the most noticeable movement towards clarity has been in consumer contracts, thanks to the regulators. The statutory requirement for plain, intelligible language in consumer contracts and its enforcement by the OFT and FSA/FCA continue to drive progress. Commercial contracts have changed less, but notable exceptions include:
- The Clearlet lease of retail premises, developed for Land Securities by a team of lawyers with input from both landlord and tenant interests, and freely available on the internet. Designed to be read by the tenant’s property director and each shop manager, this lease is about a third shorter than its predecessor. Land Securities told us it saves about a month in the time needed to complete a standard transaction. (The Clearlite version is even shorter. It can be signed and returned by the tenant within a day, if necessary, for leases of a year or less.)
- The Pathclearer approach to commercial contracts, especially supply contracts. Reduced to a single sheet of paper, these rely on commercial forces and English contract law to regulate the relationship.
- The New Engineering Contract (NEC). This set of standard contracts seeks to encourage good project management and collaboration between parties. It avoids legal language where possible, and embraces tables, diagrams and flowcharts. NEC contracts have been recommended for use on all public sector construction projects.
In 2009, the Gazette advertised Clarity’s first breakfast meeting in London. With support from the City Remembrancer’s Office in the City of London, these are now a regular event. For our first breakfast, we chose to discuss ‘Barriers to adopting plain language’, but since then we have tended to focus on sharing solutions, rather than exploring (again) the problem.
Meeting topics have ranged from ‘Plain language success in Australia’ to ‘Improving clarity through document design’. We have either held, or plan to hold, meetings focusing on every development mentioned in this article.
On 11 March, Clarity is delighted to welcome Lord Justice Lewison as guest speaker at a Clarity breakfast in the London Guildhall. He has taken as his topic ‘30 years of change: how contract drafting and interpretation have changed in the last 30 years’. This free event is open to Clarity members and to anyone else trying their first Clarity meeting. For more information see clarity-international.net or email email@example.com
Daphne Perry is a trainer, writer and consultant specialising in plain language for law and business. She has been a member of Clarity since 1993 and is its UK representative