The challenges of Legal English
What makes Legal English different?
Many learners doing a business course at The London School of English will usually find the words they study equivalent to vocabulary they are already using. Revenue is money produced by the business; profit, what is left of that money after costs like salaries and equipment have been taken out. Though the words used are different, the meanings are the same because the concepts are the same. There may be small differences, such as French speakers referring to their activity while we refer to our business, but business activity means the same in any country. The one area where learners will find big differences is when they talk about the structure of organisations. This is because this is based on company law and English law is different from that of other jurisdictions, which means that learners doing legal English courses have not only to deal with unfamiliar words but also at times with unfamiliar concepts.
Legal English at the London School
The London School provides a three-week Legal English 20-30 course for young lawyers who are studying and/or have a limited amount of on-the-job experience, and the Legal English 30+ course which is for practising lawyers with experience and lasts one week. While the course for young lawyers has a wider range, commencing with criminal law in week one, both courses focus on negotiations, contract drafting and litigation; in other words, the basics of a lawyers’ job. Both courses also have guest speakers: practising British lawyers who give talks on such areas as company law or contract law and include court visits to hear legal English in action.
Two different systems
Lawyers attending either course usually come from Civil Law systems. That means the law is largely defined by the state in the form of codes. Statutes, as such codes are called, are also important in English law and are set by parliament. But English law, that is the law that applies in England and Wales, is mainly based on common law which means that the law is made by custom, that is what has normally happened, and by the decisions of judges. A course participant on both Legal English 20-30 or 30+ will usually visit the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice. They will see three judges, and behind these judges stacks of thick folders called bundles. The bundles contain thousands of previous cases which the judges will refer to in order to make a decision about the case they are reviewing. This process of referring to past cases is called precedent. One result of this is that contracts under English law tend to be longer than those of other jurisdictions because every possibility has to be covered.
Owing to the fact the system is different, English law uses terms that may not be present in other jurisdictions. If we take contract as an example, one of the deciding factors that make an agreement binding is consideration. This means that there is an exchange which benefits both parties, that is the people involved. A permanently contracted trainer at the London School, for example, exchanges his time, knowledge and experience for a salary. This means that you cannot have a contract for a gift under English law because there is no exchange. But in other jurisdictions, such as Germany, you can because consideration is not a legal concept in German contract law.
On the other hand, many jurisdictions require a contract to have an object, that is an aim or reason. In English law there is no such need. A contract may at the start contain what are called recitals at the start, phrases using whereas, a linker of contrast, but these only usually give a background to the contract and do not have to be used.
Another example of a term not conceptually present in every other jurisdiction is utmost good faith, which is very important in insurance policies. This means that anyone taking out such a policy has to let the insurer know of anything that could affect the insurance. In the case of travel insurance, for example, the person insured must disclose any existing medical conditions. While there may be some equivalence to this in Swedish law, for example, utmost good faith does not exist as a legal concept.
Learners often find the concept of tort a challenge. Tort covers disputes and civil wrongs where there is no contract. The biggest area of tort is negligence, which means that someone fails in what could be properly expected of them. Usually, law firms insure their lawyers heavily against this. Negligence is covered by every system of law but often in a different way than under English law. And other areas of tort, such as defamation, that is speaking (=slander) or writing (=libel) badly or falsely of someone, may be criminal in certain jurisdictions such as Italy, while they are a civil matter under English law, at least to begin with.
These differences even extend to legal Latin. Learners are sometimes surprised that their trainers or visiting lawyers are unfamiliar with Latin terms they might use. In turn, they may here a phrase like caveat emptor and have no idea what it means. Caveat emptor or buyer beware is an important concept in English law. It means that someone selling a second-hand car with engine problems, for example, only has to reveal this if the buyer asks. For example, a few years ago, someone considered they had been missold a flat (an apartment) because they thought there was a ghost. Because they had not asked if there was a ghost there was nothing they could do. Caveat emptor probably explains why it is very common to have a survey made of a property before buying, as you cannot rely on the seller to tell you of any problems. In Spain, for example, surveys are not usual as the seller is more responsible for the condition of a flat or house.
Why study legal English?
Having read the above you may be wondering just why any foreign lawyer would study legal English. There is a very simple answer. Just as English is the dominant language in global business and trade as well as in many specialist fields, English law is the preferred governing law for international commercial contracts and most other legal areas. Today’s lawyers cannot do their job without it.
- Equivalent (adjective) - equal in value, amount, function, meaning etc.
- Concept (noun) - an idea or principle.
- Jurisdiction (noun) - the authority that a particular court has to make laws, rules, or decisions.
- Litigation (noun) - the process of taking legal action.
- Binding (adjective) - involving an obligation that cannot be broken.
- Second-hand (adjective) - something that has already been used.
- Reveal (verb) - make (previously unknown or secret information) known to others.
- A flat (noun, British English) - an apartment
- Property - flats, houses and land (= real estate in American English).
This post was written by Richard, one of our trainers at The London School of English
Legal English Courses
Please note that our Legal English courses are language courses for practising lawyers and law students, we do not teach Law.
Related blog posts
- The five most used terms in Legal English (level: upper intermediate - pre-advanced; 6 - 8)
- 12 Writing tips for Legal English (level: upper intermediate - pre-advanced; 6 - 8)
- The Young Law Course (level: upper intermediate - pre-advanced; 6 - 8)
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