From the newsroom


Cut the crap: make sense of  legalese

Dev Sukumar

 A recent Madras High Court judgement created much furore all over India. The court determined that a couple which had not formally married but had had a sexual relationship for a while could be termed husband and wife. 

While the judgement, for obvious reasons, did lead to several commentaries on its consequences, the language used to pronounce the verdict was ignored. “This court is of the view that if a bachelor has completed 21 years of age and a spinster is 18 years of age, then they can acquire the freedom of choice as guaranteed by the Constitution. If the couple chooses to consummate their sexual cravings, then the act becomes a total commitment with adherence to all consequences that may follow…  If any couple, subject to their attaining the mandatory age of freedom… indulges in sexual gratification, then that would be considered as valid marriage and they would be termed as ‘husband and wife’,” wrote the judge. (Italics mine)

Unless one pores over the judgement, it’s hard to make out what exactly the judge is trying to say. It is little wonder that common people do not understand the language of the courts.  Why must students of journalism, writers or bloggers be wary of this?

First, to be cautious while dealing with the language of the courts –  for crime/law is an important beat for a journalist/news blogger or commentator.    If the person cannot follow the judgement, or reduce it to its simplest meaning, what can he convey to the reader? Second, to be able to hack through the verbal jungle and find the true meaning of the judgement.

When the judgement was made public, many took to social media to discuss the issue. Some, who are legal experts analysed the topic on their blogs, several tweeted that it  was wrongly interpreted a few reposted articles by well-known commentators on their blogs.

Legal language might well be termed a dialect of English, for it required a different level of comprehension as it revels in the use of obscure sentence construction. This is true not only of India, but all over the world. A recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriages, for instance, had this gem: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” Surely there must have been a simpler way to state the same?

Let’s take the Indian example. Some of the terms can easily be shortened; others can be better phrased.

This court is of the view can be written as: “This court believes”; “a bachelor has completed 21 years of age” as “a man over 21”; they can acquire the freedom of choice as “they are free to choose”.

Now we come to the more interesting bits. A couple chooses to consummate their sexual cravings. Only in India, perhaps, do we see the use of such archaic language. Consummating sexual cravings? It’s as if sex were a dirty word, but since the judge had to refer to it, chose the most distant way possible, one that indicated his disdain of stating it. Instead: “If the couple chooses to have sex” is more direct and more meaningful.

A couple… indulges in sexual gratification… again, another strange set of words strung together. When it’s about somebody having sex, why not state it upfront, rather than hide behind a curtain of words? “A couple… having sex” conveys the same meaning, without the embroidery.

Keep It Simple and Straight

In ‘The King’s English’, the Fowler brothers offer simple advice to ensure economy and precision with words: “Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid. This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:

·         Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched

·         Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

·         Prefer the single word to the circumlocution – (For example: instead of ‘in relation to/in regard to/with reference to’, simply use                         ‘about’)

·         Prefer the short word to the long.”

This is what the author of Indlish, Jyoti Sanyal, has to say: “Legalese: The style lawyers adopt and which is characterised by circumlocution, verbosity, quaint expressions and obscurity. Lawyers seem to be haunted by the fear that laymen might understand their language without a lawyer’s help (for which they must pay) and therefore make their drafting cumbrous. The effect is uncouth.”

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