Is it possible to have legal documents that are in plain language? Ask that question to a group, and I am sure that answer would be a resounding no!
Lawyers come in for a lot of flack, but there has been a definite push for clearer communication in the law for years. Australia has been a leader.
In 1976 NRMA issued the first insurance contract in Australia in plain language (surprisingly perhaps it was a big deal with a launch at the Sydney Opera House). It paid off for the company with fewer complaints and a reduction in incorrect claims. In 1987 the then Law Reform Commission of Victoria issued their report Plain English and the Law. The report and the people involved influenced a move to the use of plain language across the profession – a push demanded more and more by clients. In the early 1990s, the need for more transparent legislation was acknowledged. With work in Australia at state and federal level to make legislation more accessible to the public. While a lot of this focused on language and structure, some pushed it further and included diagrams to explain individual sections. The Victorian Road Safety Road Rules 2017 is an example of this including pictures of specific rules and signage.
I must, of course, acknowledge the reality that there is lots of bad legal writing out there. This is true of all professions. Explaining the law is not for the faint-hearted. It requires taking risks and challenging the norm. One of the most potent examples of this was the recent decision handed down by the Chief Judge of Victoria in the case against Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church; you can read and watch it here. The case was emotional, involving child abuse allegations against Cardinal Pell. The judge’s ability to explain complex legal issues, deal with prejudices and delivery with clarity were masterful. I am sure he spent many painful hours choosing every word. How many of us are faced with similar challenges?
It is this type of work that the Clear Communication Awards wants to celebrate and acknowledge. If you are lawyer dedicated to clear communication and pushing the boundaries, consider entering our awards.