Explaining legal jargon #SolicitorChat with The Law Society.

Legal terms and phrases are second nature to solicitors, but to clients, they can often sound like confusing jargon. What is the importance of legal terminology and how solicitors can make sure their clients fully understand their cases. James Leese discussed this and more live on Twitter this morning during #SolicitorChat.

Join The Law Society and other firms discussing on Thursday mornings 0900-1000.

Why are legal terms and phrases so important in contracts and cases?

The aim of a contract is to clearly set out the details of a transaction. Contracts should provide certainty and be understood by the parties.

Contracts often contain legal terms. These can be a specific word or phrase or even a concept. They can also be an ordinary word given extra nuance due to case law (such as ‘reasonable’) or due to its definition in statute.

This is why it is important to get legal advice when entering into contracts (or any legal agreement). It is vital that you understand what you are agreeing to.

Why is taking a tailored approach when explaining legal terms important to ensure clients understand their case?

A legal document may contain many legal terms and phrases however, it may only raise a few matters of concern to the client. A solicitor will cater their advice and explanations to the level of understanding of their client. A sophisticated business-investor who routinely enters into contractual relationships is likely to require a different level of explanation to that needed by a first time buyer.

It’s also important to distinguish between explaining the concept a term represents, rather than the exact details or history of the term itself. For instance, ‘force majeure’ is a Latin phrase that means “superior force” and when used in a legal context it provides the parties with a framework in circumstances or events that are deemed outside the control of the parties to the agreement (i.e. events where there is no fault, such as pandemics). It is more important to explain the consequences of this term in the context of the agreement than it is to identify the origin of the term itself.

What should a client do if they’re unsure what a legal term means?

This is a very simple answer – they should ask their solicitor. This is a solicitor’s job and there should never be an occasion where a client would rather remain unsure of something than ask their solicitor for an explanation.

What are the most common legal terms and phrases you have to explain to your clients?

If you have bought a house your solicitor may have explained the concept of a ‘restrictive covenant’. In property, restrictive covenants are conditions tied to the ownership of the land. An example would be restrictions on building extensions or building above a certain height. Restrictive covenants also appear in other areas of law, often as conditions in contractual agreements.

Should legal terms be replaced completely with plain English alternatives?

The intention of most legal documents is to create certainty between its parties. Lawyers want to ensure the meaning is obvious and not open to interpretation. To achieve this certainty it is often necessary to use legal terms because they are able to impart precise meaning. The use of ‘plain English’ instead of settled legal terms or wording risks losing safeguards and agreed interpretations that have been defined, debated and ultimately refined over many years.

I don’t think it would be sensible to completely remove legal terminology – but it is certainly in everyone’s interest to make sure a document is easily understood and not made unnecessarily complicated.

The contents of this article are intended as guidance for readers. It can be no substitute for specific advice. Consequently we cannot accept responsibility for this information, errors or matters affected by subsequent changes in the law, or the content of any website referred to in this article. © Mundays LLP

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