Annexure 3 – Plain English Strategies

1. Use active voice, avoid passives

All parties in the legal system should change a passive statement to an active statement by supplying an actor (the doer). If the actor is unclear, use ‘they’ or ‘somebody’.

Instead of:Try:
They were arrested.The police arrested them.
You will be paid extra for overtime work.If you work overtime, they will pay you more money.
Their money was stolen.Somebody stole their money.

2. Avoid abstract nouns

An abstract noun is something that is intangible, like an idea or feeling, and cannot be detected with the senses. Judicial officers and lawyers in court frequently use abstract nouns, but many of these are special court words, not common English words which ordinary people might use and understand.

All parties in the legal system should replace abstract nouns with verbs (doing words) or adjectives (describing words).

The secret to replacing English abstract nouns correctly is to discover the actions that are hidden inside of them. An abstract noun may often hide more than one action and each of these actions will have one or more person or things involved in either doing the action or being affected by the action. So, in order to properly replace abstract nouns with plain English, judicial officers and lawyers should:

  • identify the hidden action within the abstract noun;
  • identify who or what is involved with the action;
  • restate the abstract noun in a sentence using ordinary nouns and verbs.156
Instead of:Try:
Provision of the ActThe Act tells me what to do
Interpret my direction thatInterpret what I say to the defendant…
Sentence be suspended after 5 monthsYou stay in prison just five months
Good behaviour(you are) not to break the law
It has no strengthIt is not strong (adjective)
Their patience has run outThey will not be patient any more (adjective)
They enjoy going for a runThey like running (verb)

3. Avoid negative questions

Instead of:Try:
Aren't they the boss?Are they the boss?
You never did that before, did you?Have you ever done this before?
So you didn't report trouble?Have you reported the trouble?

4. Define unfamiliar words

All parties in the legal system should define unfamiliar words, by using the word and then attaching a short descriptive statement.

Instead of:Try:
This is Crown landCrown land is land the government owns.
You have been granted bailThe police gave you bail, which means you promise to come back to court next time and not get into trouble before then.

5. Put ideas in chronological order

Instead of:Try:
Prior to leaving the hotel, you had a drink?You had a drink at the hotel. Sometime after that you left the hotel. Is that true?
You’re scheduled into the house next week, but you haven’t signed the tenancy agreement?First you have to sign the tenancy agreement. Then you can move into the house next week.
Today we need to decide whether you’re going to have surgery, based on your test results from last week.You came in last week and we checked your blood. Today I want to tell you about that blood test and then we can decide what to do next.

6. One idea, one sentence

All parties in the legal system should avoid multiple clauses in a sentence, instead breaking paragraphs into several sentences.

Instead of:Try:
And I set a period of two years as the
operational period for the suspended sentence.
After you come out of prison, you must live for the next two years without breaking the law by doing something really bad. If you do break the law, you will come back to court. Court might decide you will return to prison.
You will be subject to supervision by a
Probation Officer and you will obey all
reasonable directions including as to
reporting, residence, and employment.
The Probation Officer will make certain that you obey the things I am telling you today. The Probation Officer will tell you when to talk to them. You will tell them where you are living and what work you are doing.

7. Be careful about talking about hypothetical events

All parties in the legal system should be careful when using words like ‘if’ and ‘or’ to talk about hypothetical events that have not happened yet. Use ‘maybe’ to indicate multiple possibilities.

Instead of:Try:
If the corrections officer approves, you can go to the football game.You must ask the corrections officer about going to the football game. Maybe they will say that you can go. Maybe they will say you cannot go. You must do what they say.

8. Place cause before effect

Instead of:Try:
You’re going to be imprisoned for three weeks because you didn’t comply with your orders.The judge gave you rules to follow. You didn’t follow those rules. That is why the judge is putting you in jail for three weeks.
You were angry because they insulted your sister?They insulted your sister and this made you angry. Is this true?

9. Indicate when you change topic

For example, try:

‘I’ve finished asking about your job. Now I need to ask you about your family.’

‘Thanks for telling me about what happened last week. Now I want to talk to you about what we should do tomorrow.’

10. Avoid relying heavily on prepositions to talk about time

All parties in the legal system should avoid using propositions like ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘on’, ‘at’, ‘under’ to talk about time.

Instead of:Try:
The program will operate from Wednesday to next Tuesday.The program will start on Wednesday and then finish next Tuesday.
They will make a decision over the next three months.They will think about this for three months and then they will decide what they will do.

11. Avoid figurative language or metaphors

Instead of:Try:
When I said that, they just exploded.When I said that, they suddenly got angry and shouted at me.
I want to make sure that we’re on the same page.I want to make sure we understand each other.
Keep your eye on them.Keep watching them closely.
Steve Swartz, ‘Unpacking English Abstract Nouns’ (Presentation of Paper, Language and the Law Conference, 2012).