Legal English

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Not to be confused with English legal terms, see English law.

Legal English (Legalese) is the style of English used by lawyers and other legal professionals in the course of their work. It has particular relevance when applied to legal writing and the drafting of written material, including:

Legal English has traditionally been the preserve of lawyers from English-speaking countries (especially the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, and South Africa) which have shared common law traditions. However, due to the spread of Legal English as the predominant language of international business, as well as its role as a legal language within the European Union, legal English is now a global phenomenon. It is informally referred to as lawspeak or legalese.

Historical development[edit]

Modern legal English is based on standard English. However, it contains a number of unusual features. These largely relate to terminology, linguistic structure, linguistic conventions, and punctuation, and have their roots in the history of the development of English as a legal language.

In prehistoric Britain, traditional common law was discussed in the vernacular (see Celtic law). The legal language and legal tradition changed with waves of conquerors over the following centuries. Roman Britain (after the conquest beginning in AD 43) followed Roman legal tradition, and its legal language was Latin. Following the Roman departure from Britain circa 410 and the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, the dominant tradition was instead Anglo-Saxon law, which was discussed in the Germanic vernacular (Anglo-Saxon, Old English), and written in Old English since circa 600, beginning with the Law of Æthelberht. Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Anglo-Norman French became the official language of legal proceedings in England for a period of nearly 300 years (and continued in minor use for another 300 years), while Latin was used for written records for over 650 years. Some English technical terms were retained, however (see Anglo-Saxon law: Language and dialect for details).

In legal pleadings, Anglo-Norman developed into Law French, from which many words in modern legal English are derived. These include property, estate, chattel, lease, executor, and tenant. The use of Law French during this period has an enduring influence on the general linguistic register of modern legal English. It also accounts for some of the complex linguistic structures employed in legal writing. In 1363, the Statute of Pleading was enacted, which stated that all legal proceedings be conducted in English (but recorded in Latin). This marked the beginning of formal Legal English; Law French continued to be used in some forms into the 17th century, though it became increasingly degenerate.

From 1066, Latin was the language of formal records and statutes, being replaced by English in the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730. However, since only the learned were fluent in Latin, it never became the language of legal pleading or debate. The influence of Latin can be seen in a number of words and phrases such as ad hoc, de facto, bona fide, inter alia, and ultra vires, which remain in current use in legal writing (see Legal Latin).


David Crystal (2004) proposes a stylistic influence upon English legal language. During the Medieval period lawyers used a mixture of Latin, French and English. To avoid ambiguity, lawyers often offered pairs of words from different languages. Sometimes there was little ambiguity to resolve and the pairs merely gave greater emphasis, becoming a stylistic habit. This is a feature of legal style that continues to the present day. Examples of mixed language doublets are: "breaking and entering" (English/French), "fit and proper" (English/French), "lands and tenements" (English/French), and "will and testament" (English/Latin). Examples of English-only doublets are "let and hindrance" and "have and hold".

Modern English vocabulary draws significantly from Germanic languages, French, and Latin, the lattermost often by way of French. These vocabularies are used preferentially in different registers, with words of French origin being more formal than those of Germanic origin, and words of Latin origin being more formal than those of French origin. Thus, the extensive use of French and Latin words in Legal English results in a relatively formal style.

Further, legal English is useful for its dramatic effect: for example, a subpoena compelling a witness to appear in court often ends with the archaic threat "Fail not, at your peril"; the "peril" isn't described (being arrested and held in contempt of court) but the formality of the language tends to have a stronger effect on the recipient of the subpoena than a simple statement like "We can arrest you if you don't show up".

Key features[edit]

As noted above, legal English differs from standard English in a number of ways. The most important of these differences are as follows:


Due to the prevalence of the English language in international business relations, as well as its role as a legal language within the European Union, a feeling has existed for a long period in the international legal community that traditional English language training is not sufficient to meet lawyers’ English language requirements. The main reason for this is that such training generally ignores the ways in which English usage may be modified by the particular demands of legal practice – and by the conventions of legal English as a separate branch of English in itself.

As a result thereof, non-native English speaking legal professionals and law students are increasingly seeking specialist training in legal English, and such training is now provided by a number of firms which focus exclusively on legal language. The UK TOLES examination was set up specifically to tackle the trend of 'academic' legal English for non-native English speakers. The exams focus on the aspects of legal English noted as lacking by lawyers.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butt, Peter; Castle, Richard (2001). Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 139–140. ISBN 978-0521001861. 
  2. ^

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