Is Legal English About To Get More Complicated?

 In Brexit, Business English, Legal English

Legal English is the defacto language for international trade and business. Subsequently, English is the common language adopted by various legal systems in Civil Law countries across the globe.

The spread of legal frameworks on the global stage has developed over a number of years. With the business world largely dominated by English speaking countries, judicial systems have adopted legal English to help make communication in international business and finance contracts and disputes smoother.

For example, in 2004, the “DIFC” courts were established as part of the legal system of the United Arab Emirates to oversee civil and commercial disputes connected to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). DIFC courts were also incorporated into the courts of Kazakhstan in 2009.

With the mass adoption of the English language in global judicial systems, legal English can be complicated for international lawyers. Different parts of the world have different words and pronunciations.

Legal English also differs from standard international English. Like many other industries, legal English has become a language of its own.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that legal English uses the same words you find in general English. However, quite often the same word has a different meaning when applied to the law. But not always!

For example, “consideration” in general English means careful thought before making a decision. In legal English, the term refers to “a payment”.

Another good example is “Tender”. In general English, tender means to be gentle and kind. In legal English it means an offer to supply goods or services).

No matter what your proficiency level is in English, international lawyers in Vienna will fair much better if you have a good understanding of legal English.


Why should you learn Legal English?

It’s fair to say that English has become a “career tongue.” Schwartz Insurance Group have noted that foreign professionals that speak English increase their chances of securing lucrative jobs.

International lawyers need to be proficient in the range of language skills: reading, writing and listening.

Reading and writing are important for understanding legal texts and writing correspondence including emails, the preparation of documents, drafting written contracts, and issuing court pleadings and judgements.

You also need to speak and understand spoken English to a high level. There is a wide range of accents and words can sound very different. Think about how many different accents there are in Austria.

The same rule applies in England. People from the north do not sound words in the same way as people from south-central. There is a difference again in the accents of people in the south-east and south-west.

If you have spoken with English natives from America, Australia and Canada you will hear different pronunciations of the same word. Indians, Africans, Arabs and Asians all pronounce English words differently as well.

Legal English skills are not only required to solve problems and prepare a case efficiently, you also need to instill confidence in your client. If you don’t show a high level of proficiency in legal English they may not trust you to show a high level of competency in a judicial system that adopts the English language.

Judges are also reportedly growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with texts prepared by international lawyers. In some cases, preliminary cases have been so poorly written, the case resulted in litigation.

The United Nations experienced similar difficulties when trying war criminals. A lengthy report detailing Legal and Judicial reform in governance operations declares:

“Important to note is that language politics soured the relationship between the UN administration and the East Timorese relatively early on. There was a perception on the part of the Timorese that the United Nations wanted to impose the use of Bahasa Indonesia or English as a working language in East Timor, and in one instance Foreign Minister Ramos Horta threatened that he would prohibit the participation of any of his staff in a UN-organized training workshop if it was not conducted in Portuguese.”

In today’s arena, it is widely accepted that you need to be proficient in legal English to practice international law. Individuals that do not possess the relevant skills may not be given the opportunity to appear before the courts.

In other words, you won’t progress through the ranks as an English lawyer if you’re not able to handle legal English effectively. Clients do not have confidence in lawyers they can only communicate with through an interpreter.

Therefore, the capacity to communicate spoken and written English in a legal setting gives you an advantage over your contemporaries.

You may already speak Legal English to a reasonably good standard. As a matter of fact, students are expected to have a reasonable command of English in order to enroll on a course. The textbooks for legal English start at intermediate level or B1 according to Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).


Is there potential for lawyers to learn more legal English?

 A fair amount of business in Austria is conducted in legal English. Vienna is a lucrative market for English businesses. With a strong economy and social stability, the number of English-speaking businesses in Austria has grown steadily over the last 20 years.

That means the opportunities for international lawyers in Vienna are at a premium. With Brexit in full swing, it would be unwise for international lawyers not to anticipate significant changes to various legislation.

Trade laws between the EU and UK have already had an impact. An increase in paperwork for customs and excise together with new clauses popping up into contracts could potentially become more complicated before the creases are ironed out.

New laws also look set to be on the horizon. As I mentioned in a previous article , the EU is hoping to strike an Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) with the US.

The AFTA agreement will be in addition to Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU.

If you’re tested on the years just remember AFTA came after. A little English joke for you there.


What are the distinctive features of legal English?

Legal English has been shaped over hundreds of years. It’s influences can be found in Latin, French and Anglo-Saxon. Many of these terms are still used today and, therefore, need to be understood by international lawyers.

As I briefly mentioned above, you will also find regional varieties of legal English. In England, lawyers are called solicitors and barristers, for example. Solicitors and barristers also play different roles.

When learning legal English it helps to understand the distinctive features within the language used. The features can be divided into two categories; legal vocabulary and syntax.

Legal vocabulary is further broken down into three categories: technical terms, legal English v general English and general terms that are used the same way in law.

Examples of technical terminology are: advocate, litigation, indemnity, deposition, collusion, subpoena.

Examples of legal English v general English refers to terms that are found in both, but take on a different meaning: appeal, fine, warrant, action, suit.

Example of general English terms that also appear in law and carry the same meaning are: judge, witness, testify, theft, misdemeanour.

You will find a comprehensive list of legal English terms here.

You will also find the same word spelled differently. Spelling in English can differ from US English, and most judicial systems adopt US English spellings.

Some legal terms also have origins from Latin (bona fide, caveat emptor, compos mentis), but have been translated into modern English. You will find “Bona Fide” written as “good faith”, caveat emptor as “let the buyer beware” and compos mantis as “of sound mind”.

The vocabulary used in legal English is also often characterised by a degree of archaic use taken from when the statutes were first written in “ye olde Englishe.” “Whilst”, “showeth” “bequeath” and “witnesseth” are good examples.

In writing, legal English typically uses long and complex sentences that are not generally found in ordinary English. As a result, you find multiple levels of subordination. You will probably be familiar with such language in contracts.

You will also come across passive terms. The passive tense is used to place emphasis on the resulting incident which was caused by a consequence of certain actions.

Newcomers to legal English will also find differences in the use of connectors (“provided that”, “whereas”), the omission of the relative pronoun, and a tendency to avoid the negative particle “not”.

In addition, legal English uses the subjunctive after verbs like “ask” and “advise” after adjectives like “important” and “essential”.

Glossary of legal English terms published by the British Law Society.


Is Legal English Still Relevant?

There is some debate as to whether the use of Legal English is relevant anymore. Even in the UK and the US, legal terms are not understood by the general public.

Should global legal systems adopt an international language? From a rational point of view you would have to think a standard language would be more appropriate for everyone – International lawyers and the general public.

However, advocates of using legal English argue the use of legalese terminology has an authority and an advantage over standard English. Adopting a standard international language would not be sufficient to understand and interpret extensive laws.

Lawyers tend to use “legalese”. This basically means sentences are structured in a way that makes that sound more impressive; authoritative.

Legal English also combines Latin, French and Anglo-Saxon which would be difficult to translate into a language that expresses the original interpretation of the law.

That’s not to say, all legal English has to be authoritative and overcomplicated. The language you use should be determined by the person you are communicating with.

For example, it is generally understood that the type of legal English you write in letters and emails to clients is less formal than the language you use in a letter to other legal practitioners.

The language used in contracts takes on a different form altogether. Legal clauses obey grammatical rules that were common historically rather than common rules we adopt today.

Without a good understanding of legal English, it will be difficult for legal practitioners in Vienna to determine which level of language is most suitable for the task. You wouldn’t want to speak to a client in ‘legalese”.


Learn Business English in Vienna

Professional lawyers in Vienna will have an advantage if you understand Legal English. This is especially true for international lawyers. If you’re a student of law, you will undoubtedly come across some of the challenges described above.

Given English is the predominant language around the world, learning how to read, write and speak legal English to a high level is essential to succeed in the legal profession.

Internationalisation and globalisation have broadened the number of judicial systems that communicate in legal English around the world. Recent developments such as Brexit and the potential expansion or introduction of trade agreements will make international law even more complicated than ever before.

Legal professionals and students of law in Vienna would be wise to test and develop their English language skills by enrolling on a personalised legal English programme.

Our native English speakers have years of experience teaching legal English. What’s more, we deliver individual coaching in order to customise lessons to your specific requirements.

We invite you to bring documents and law books you are working with so we can help you to understand and interpret real-world examples. Our students find this is a far more productive and satisfactory way of learning than a generalised group session.

E4P specialise in legal English courses in Vienna, so contact us today to register for personalised 1-2-1 sessions with a native English tutor. We’re here to help you elevate your career.

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