Legal Jargon – Alive and Well in Canada?

We were lucky enough to travel in England and Wales in early October. We travelled by plane, train, tube, bus and taxi (in addition to miles of walking). At the train station in Bath we picked up a copy of “Metro” – a tabloid type newspaper similar, perhaps, to Vancouver’s “24 Hours”. An article caught my eye: “Tough sentences…baffling lingo of courts explained”. An experienced (unnamed) barrister apparently believes that the jargon in the English criminal courtroom is so confusing (even law students cannot understand it) that he penned a colourfully worded dictionary to translate certain well-used phrases. Each phrase and translation are set out below:

“Speaking plainly, m’lud…the translations.

  • In my respectful submission: Listen up, yo.
  • I am specifically instructed that…: Contrary to my sound advice, my client is insisting that I say that…
  • If your honour is against me on that point: I infer from the fact that you have spent ten minutes trying to loudly humiliate me that you might not agree with my carefully reasoned argument, so let’s all move on…
  • If your honour is with me on that point: Just say you agree and then I can sit down and stop talking.
  • I mean no criticism of my learned friend: My learned friend’s solicitors are incompetent, probably corrupt and in all likelihood ugly mofos to boot.
  • Your honour may recall this case: Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
  • It’s a brief matter that will take no more than five minutes, if your honour is content to take the matter out of turn: It’s a difficult matter that will take hours to determine but I’m bored poopless of waiting my turn.
  • It may be that in due course I seek assistance from your honour: I’m going to ask you to confirm you won’t send my client to jail. Then he’ll plead guilty and we can all go home.”

This may be jargon uniquely relevant to an English criminal court OR, perhaps, it reminds us of similar jargon used in Canadian criminal and civil courts. If so, no wonder self-represented litigants and new lawyers have such a hard time figuring out what is really going on! Julie MacFarlane’s study confirmed that SRLs concluded there was a “secret language” being used in the proceedings which was incomprehensible to those outside of the legal fraternity leading to feelings of exclusion.

While every profession has a certain kind of jargon, shouldn’t we be paying attention to how we use language and work harder to ensure that it does not exclude those for whom the system was designed?


  1. One can readily agree with the principle that the system should use language comprehensible – even usable – by those for whom it is designed. The harder question is to know who it is designed for.

    The turns of phrase in the quoted article aren’t really jargon and aren’t really hard to understand. The intent is comic rather than didactic. I am a bit surprised that some of the ‘translations’ use vocabulary I would have thought of as American rather than British, but I suppose globalization affects such things too.

    But some actual jargon, i.e. vocabulary known to people in a profession but not so much to the public, constitutes useful shortcuts for the users of the system. One does not want to have to explain ‘presumption’ or ‘consideration’ or ‘prima facie case’ (though Ontario stopped using that expression, and all Latin, in its statutes 25 years ago) – one wants just to get on with the argument.

    However, when a significant number of participants in the system cannot be expected to know the jargon, it is a reasonable question how one keeps things fair to them. Some inefficiency is the price to pay for meaningful participation.

    There is no single or simple solution, but some elements are no doubt that lawyers and judges need to watch their technical language when some parties are representing themselves. A couple of words of explanation would help expedite things rather than slow them down, in many cases.

    An argument can also be made that if lawyers are required not to take their usual (linguistic and thus conceptual) shortcuts, they may clarify their own thinking as they take the long way around – so both SRL and counsel benefit, and probably the court too.

  2. Thanks John. While the post was intended to be light-hearted I really appreciate how you have, as you always do, taken a thoughtful and deeper approach to this topic. You are right, of course, to identify the need for a balance in our use of language to meet objectives of both efficiency and inclusion. Much harder than it appears on the surface. Thanks again.

  3. Anyone who posts online about language and the law should expect that, if I see it, I’ll have something to contribute.

    Thanks John for specifically bringing up ‘prima face case’, the term that kicked off my decade and a half of research and litigation as an SRL. David Mellinkoff, the plain language guru, did not mention the term even once in the book – Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense – someone happened to give me shortly after my sojourn began. In another book he simply claimed it had become a part of standard English. This was one point on which he was wrong.

    As I’ve previously mentioned online (and probably here at slaw), in 1992 the BC Legislature debated and passed a Labour Code provision (Section 13) that specifically cited the term – twice in two successive lines. An interesting question is who drafted that provision. A more interesting question is by what means was the term subsequently removed from that provision without the Legislature reconsidering it, which would have created a public record.

    The legal profession vastly underestimates how consequential the language problem is going to prove to be. Go to the Canadian Judicial Council’s website and take a close look at the change made very recently to the language used to describe how the Executive Director determines that a complaint doesn’t warrant being seen by any member of the Council. ‘Clearly irrational’ has been discarded, ‘abuse of process’ has been retained, and now he can also rely on several other alleged criteria. (See Section 5 Early Screening Criteria(a), (b) and (c)) –

    Such games demonstrate that we live under not the Rule of Law, but rather the Rule of Humpty Dumpty.

    I’m now looking at something else – Critical Discourse Analysis. It may be what is needed to demonstrate, among other things, how language is manipulated to create such gatekeeper devices as those two I’ve just mentioned.