November 22, 2004

Hey Judge, these instructions are, like, too long or, like, in Latin or something

Legal language, what a coincidence. Listen to this short piece on NPR's Morning Edition this morning, reporting that "judges and legal experts" in California "are revamping the instructions given to jurors for the state's criminal cases. Studies have shown that jurors are often confused by the very language that is supposed to help them determine a defendant's guilt or innocence." Carol Corrigan is an Associate Appeals Justice in San Francisco "who heads the task force rewriting the instructions for jurors", and she says:

All the studies seem to show that people's attention spans certainly aren't getting any longer. If you look at the way information is disseminated to people, everything has to be the length of a bumper sticker.

Judge Corrigan "says there is a reason why the average person cannot decipher legalese terms rooted in Latin and Norman French. 'Because it's written by lawyers for other lawyers, primarily.'"

For those keeping score at home, here is a summary of what has been asserted so far. Jury instructions are confusing because:

  1. they require longer attention spans than the average person has; if it's not bumper-sticker length, forget it.
  2. they require some knowledge of Latin and Norman French vocabulary that the average person doesn't have.

We could quibble over the veracity of these assertions, but here's the punchline: the one example of jury instruction simplification cited in the piece.

So, old phrases like "mitigating factors" would be changed to: "factors that make the crime less worthy of punishment".

In terms of the short attention span problem, I think the average person would be lost at around "less worthy". In terms of the vocabulary problem, this proposed rephrasing is flanked on both sides by Latin and French words: "factors" [ad. Fr. facteur, ad. L. factor, agent-n. f. facĕre to do, make. Some of the obs. senses are immediately from L.] and "punishment" [a. AF. punisement (13th c. in Britton) = OF. punissement, f. punir to PUNISH: see -MENT.]. (Etymologies courtesy of the OED Online.)

Don't get me wrong -- I do think that more average people will understand the new phrase than the old phrase. But at the very least a better example could have been chosen here, don't you think?

Responding to concerns about the possible legal consequences of these changes to jury instructions, Judge Corrigan is equally off the mark:

We aren't going to bring it down to the manner of speaking of Beavis and Butt-head, [laughs] you know? And the law is not a See Spot Run kind of enterprise, so it's not going to be reduced to that level.

Laurie Rozakis, an English professor and author of English Grammar for the Utterly Confused, can apparently be counted on "to help strike a balance between basic English and legalese":

I'm a very big proponent of clear, direct, simple prose. [...] Make it communicative; make it communicate quickly and easily -- especially when someone's life is at stake.

Movements to "simplify" legalese are popping up all over the place, and have already made inroads in some states (according to this NPR piece). Is there a linguist involved in any of these movements? I sure hope so.

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at November 22, 2004 12:38 PM