Language of law can be confusing to manyMar 29, 2022 09:45PM ● By Erin Dixon
Twenty-one percent of Americans struggle with reading comprehension, while new laws are difficult for college graduates. (Pixabay)
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
One in five American adults, or 21%, have trouble reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These adults cannot compare and contrast information, understand paraphrasing or draw conclusions from what they read.
The state of Utah just finished its legislative session. New laws were discussed, changed, put in or thrown out. The needed reading level to understand many of the bills is at least 12th grade, with many needing college graduate skills.
Every bill has a description at the top that explains in bullet points telling what the bill does. Using a readability formula (readability.com), the description, not the bill itself, of House Bill 2 “New Fiscal Year Supplemental Appropriations Act” got a score of “college graduate and above” and “very difficult to read.”
“The legal jargon is so overwhelming sometimes that it makes me want to give up reading it entirely,” Midvale resident KoriAnne Starr Lucero said. “How are we as constituents supposed to know what is being passed (or what we are supporting or supposed to follow) if it’s intentionally made difficult to understand?”
The difficulty of understanding law is a problem linguists across the country have studied for decades.
“There has been a growing concern…regarding the inability of lay persons to understand legal language,” Robert and Veda Charrow wrote in the Columbia Law Review 1979. “This concern has generated a movement to rewrite legal documents in ‘plain English.’”
When spoken, law can be even harder to understand.
“...[With] native speakers…listening comprehension accuracy of long, complex sentences with legal terminology (i.e., sentences similar to those in the Miranda warning) is less than 50%,” Scott Jarvis, a linguistics professor at the University of Utah, said. “Whereas it surpasses 90% for all other types of sentences.”
The choice of words comes to the people who make the laws, and even lawyers need specific training to understand the language of their own specialty.
“There’s a lot of legalese, with antiquated Latin terms,” Scotti Hill from the Utah State Bar said. “Law schools train people to translate.”
After the laws are written, there are many ways to interpret them. Some say the law needs to be understood from the intent of the author, at the time it was written. Others say the law needs to be interpreted with modern meanings.
“Sometimes every comma does matter,” Hill said. “Sometimes every single word matters.”
Utah Rep. Robert Spendlove explained to the City Journals the bills are written by Legislative Research and Council.
“If we don’t write a bill in a certain way it will get overturned by the courts,” Spendlove said.
“It can be simple or it can be really complicated. It has to be able to withhold judicial scrutiny.”
Another Utah representative, Cheryl Acton, is pleased with how Utah approaches law making.
“Compared to laws I've seen from other states, Utah's laws are almost entirely devoid of emotion and very cut and dried,” Acton said. “I'd give our Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel an A on this. Plus they are constantly cleaning up old sections of code to remove extraneous and outdated words.”