Can the Law Speak Directly to its Subjects? The Limitation of Plain Language

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Can we dispense with lawyers as intermediaries between the law and its subjects? Can laypeople have direct access to the law? The Plain English Movement (PEM) has long promoted the use of plain language in legal writing as the way to demystify the law, and many governments and private corporations have expended significant resources on drafting legislation and legal documents in plain language. This article argues that the PEM has exaggerated the capacity of plain language to render the law intelligible to the non-lawyer, obscuring the deeper question of legal complexity by focusing solely on language and style. Using the law effectively requires expertise that goes far beyond understanding the meaning of the words used to communicate it: certain complex aspects of the law cannot be eliminated by mere simplification of language and this article demonstrates that other specialized skills are required over and above the ability to penetrate technical language. The paradigmatic illustration of the need for such skills is litigation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)376-404
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Law and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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