Law: The last word in legal: Sharon Wallach talks to the chairman of Clarity, a group campaigning for the profession to replace unintelligible language with plain English

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THE INDEPENDENT was presented with a Crystal Clear News Shield in the Plain English Campaign's 13th annual awards this week. The dubious honour of a Golden Bull for gobbledegook went to, among others, a Staffordshire firm of solicitors, Bowcock & Pursaill, for its stunning 186-word sentence used in a legal agreement. The firm promised to do better next time.

It might do well to consult Mark Adler, the chairman of Clarity, a group campaigning for the profession to use plain English. Mr Adler, a sole practitioner in Surbiton, Surrey, has written an entertaining and useful book, Clarity for Lawyers. 'Lawyers with pens or dictating machines forget they are people,' it begins. 'Where a human being would say: 'The house is ready', a solicitor employs a large staff to say: 'We hereby give you notice in accordance with clause II . . .' '

Clarity was launched in 1983 in response to a letter in the Law Society's Gazette from a surveyor, asking why leases had to be unintelligible. A local authority solicitor replied and the movement to simplify legal English was born. Clarity, whose patron is Lord Justice Staughton, boasts some 400 members, 50 or 60 of them abroad.

'Most of our members are solicitors, but there are also barristers, parliamentary draftsmen and academics,' Mr Adler says. 'We had a prime minister once (New Zealand's Geoffrey Palmer), but he is no longer in office.' Mr Adler edits the group's quarterly journal and acts as a consultant for law firms and other organisations. Clarity also holds regular seminars on plain English.

There is more than whim in the promotion of plain English. 'A lot of work has been done in Australia, Canada and the United States, where large businesses found that they were saving huge amounts by getting rid of gobbledegook,' Mr Adler says. 'Translation into clear language uncovers mistakes and ambiguities that no one knew were there and it saves the customer, and the lawyer, a lot of time. Staff who previously only answered queries could be reassigned to more productive work.'

Ten years ago, the Thatcher government introduced measures to dispense with unnecessary documents in the Civil Service and to translate others into clear language. The initiative is still going, helped by the Plain English Campaign.

The evolution of legalese was a long process, Mr Adler believes, with no single cause. Part of the problem lies in the fact that in Anglo-Saxon times legal matters were conducted in three languages: old English, Latin and legal French. Words from each language were used one after the other to cover every eventuality, leading to modern repetitive expressions such as null and void, or last will and testament.

There was also a strong element of ritual, which dictated that a precise formula had to be used, not necessarily depending on the meaning of the words. Lawyers were at one time paid by the folio, though it is unlikely, Mr Adler says, that they now use language to increase fees.

New lawyers are trained to repeat the sins of their fathers. 'Articled clerks, or trainees as we must now call them, think that if they write in plain English people will not take them seriously. There is a general pressure to conform and the habit of legalese is too ingrained to be easily changed,' Mr Adler says.

He is convinced that whatever the historical reasons for the use of gobbledegook, solicitors can run their practices far more profitably by using plain English. 'Recently, I spent five hours on a 30-page draft lease for a client, working out what is acceptable and how it needs to be changed,' Mr Adler says. 'Much of it was gibberish, it was riddled with mistakes, ambiguities and unworkable provisions. It was lost in its own verbosity.'

An age-old feature of legalese is its lack of punctuation. The excuse for this is that a mistaken comma could change the intended meaning. But, says Mr Adler, take that argument to its logical conclusion and you would not use words at all, because they may be ambiguous. He uses the analogy of a builder erecting a skyscraper without cement. 'Lawyers are paid a lot of money for their exceptional skill with language, and most of them are semi-literate,' he says, somewhat depressingly.

He does not claim that the use of plain English will solve all problems. 'The greatest lawyer in the world could make a mistake,' he says. 'It's a stressful, busy and complicated job with fast deadlines.'

Members of the public should put pressure on solicitors to write plainly, Mr Adler says. 'They're paying, and there is no point in getting advice if you can't understand it. If everyone put a foot down, there would be an enormous improvement.' The fact that people don't is partly intimidation, partly laziness. 'There's no point in keeping a dog and barking yourself, but you do need to exercise some sort of supervision over your dog.'

The Law Society, which has published Mr Adler's book, consults Clarity over the wording of forms and leaflets destined for public use. 'They help us to get things right,' says the society's publications manager, Ruth Lawrence. 'I had to laugh when he returned the draft contract for his book. It was covered in red ink and I could barely read it.' His amended version is used as the basis for many of the society's contracts. 'And I'm very careful when I write to him now.'

(Photograph omitted)

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