What is Legal English
Legal English differs from standard international English in that it refers to the style of English used by legal professionals in their work. For example, the language used in international contracts and statutes, which can also be referred to as “legalese”. Legal English has long been considered a necessary skill for lawyers in English-speaking countries however due to the emergence of English as the language of international business it fast becoming a necessary skill for all legal international professionals to consider acquiring.
In this article we will take a look at how this happened and what it means for international practicing lawyers today and in the future.
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Traditionally the law has always had its own “language” used and understood only by legal professionals internationally, whether this be Latin, English, French or a combination of other languages. This legal language has changed and adapted with the various conquering countries in the past. Each influence has contributed significantly to the international language we call Legal English today and forms the basis of its distinctive style. When explored further it is clearly possible to see how common terms in international Legal English today such as “Will and Testament” have developed from a combination of the languages that exist only in the Legal world.
There are a number of differences between Legal English and standard international English. Firstly, some words in standard international English have entirely different meanings when used in a legal context. One example of this is the use of the word “consideration” which means thinking about others in standard international English, but when used with regard to a contract refers to the thing of value that passes between people in exchange for something. Secondly, there are the words that are only used in an international legal context and would not be used or understood in everyday life by persons without legal training such as “tort” and “restrictive covenant”. There is also the distinct lack of punctuation in legal documents and differing word order. This would cause great confusion to a person who has only taken a standard international English course and had no understanding of Legal English. In fact there are a number of grammatical differences another example being the use of the word “said” in the phrase “the said Martin O’Leary”. Finally and most obviously there is the
use of words and phrases in other languages altogether for example “mens rea”.
International Legal English
The formality of Legal English helps emphasise the importance and significance of certain international documents for example Declarations. It makes the person signing the document, particularly if they are not legally trained, consider the document more carefully and appreciate the significance of it. However it must not be forgotten who the document is actually intended for; whilst the use of international Legal English will result in a formal, impressive and intimidating document, if it causes confusion for the client then neither the document nor the legal professional are correctly fulfilling their role. Someone who does not understand international Legal English will struggle to create, or interpret, a legal document that balances a need for formality with the client’s requirements and understanding.
There is some international debate as to the necessity of Legal English as there is the argument that the law should be conducted in an international language that is easily understood by the general public. However as mentioned above there is the advantage that the use of Legal English gives a document an authority that standard international English will not be able to do. Also, without an understanding of Legal English it would be impossible to correctly understand and interpret the extensive laws made previously.
Use of International Legal English will depend on the type of correspondence or document. For example a Deed of Variation will obviously contain more Legal English than a letter of advice to a client. There will even be differences between documents for example a contract for a major international company will require a lot more Legal English than the minutes of a neighbourhood watch meeting. Without a knowledge and understanding of international Legal English it will be difficult to balance precisely how formal a document should be and how to use Legal English.
Despite the continuing international debate regarding the use of international Legal English it is clear that it is the professional language of the legal profession and thus an important skill for any legal professional to acquire. International Legal English is ingrained in the profession whether this be a positive or negative thing and remaining ignorant of it will only result in a less effective and efficient legal professional.
British Legal Centre offers a number of International Legal English courses.