When it comes to parsing through legalese in any walk of life — from declaration of land titles, to property purchases or disputes, filing of criminal cases, understanding company law, taxation, or even approaching a notary for a change of name or spelling, many of us throw up our hands in frustration. The long-winded legal jargon, combined with elliptical language, interspersed with Latin that literally bounces off the heads of ordinary people have made most of us wary of legal documents and judgments. We’d rather be accompanied by a lawyer before signing on the dotted line.
But it’s not just the layman who is having a hard time making sense of legalese. Even justices in the Supreme Court have found themselves confused by legal judgments pronounced by members of their fraternity in various district high courts. Recently, the nation’s apex court made an earnest call for simplicity, brevity and clarity in the lexicon used by members of the legal fraternity in the passing of judgments.
The Supreme Court had made these observations while sending back an incomprehensible judgment to the Himachal Pradesh High Court, for fresh consideration stating that judgments should make sense to the litigants. In this case, the verdict delivered by the HC division bench were littered with usages such as ‘ire res-controversia’, ‘contra therewith’, ‘adduced’, ‘factum’, and ‘appertains’. The SC bench remarked that complex and long sentences in judgments defeat the efficacy of justice delivery and in turn leave the litigants confused about how and why the court delivered a certain verdict. The point was the judgment should make sense to those whose lives and affairs are affected by the case.
To top it off, in India, just about 10% or only 125 mn-odd people speak the Queen’s language. In such a situation, it seems surprising that members of the legal discipline choose to communicate not just in English, but an entirely inaccessible format of the language. Experts believe that in developed, first world nations in the West, the attempt to simplify or modernise legalese had kickstarted only a decade or two ago.
Citizens have often pointed out that it was not just the court decrees, but various orders issued by health ministers of states and district collectors during the lockdown that were cloaked in complex instructions, which failed to percolate down to the masses. Archaic usages such as hereto, thereto, hereunder, thereunder, hereinafter, herewith, and many such words are part of several documents of a legal nature, which technically have no place in modern language. Several critics of the judicial system have argued that wrapping judgments or government documents in such veneers of complexity, only helps retain an element of ambiguity. This in turn prevents ordinary citizens from pinning down anyone on account of assigning responsibility.
As of August 2022, as many as 69,000 cases were pending in the Supreme Court . The courts cannot afford to send judgments back and forth for review – only because the language used is too complex even for the judges to follow. There is an acute need to simplify the vocabulary, not just of the judiciary, but every unit of the State and Central administration. The law needs to work in favour of the citizen, and the apt approach to this would be employing the KISS principle — Keep it Short and Simple.