October 13, 2011, is being celebrated around the world as the First Annual International Plain Language Day. This new celebration is planned to coincide with the first anniversary of The Plain Writing Act, Public Law 111-274, enacted October 13, 2010. The Plain Writing Act requires U.S. government materials written for the public to be in plain language. The passage of the Plain Writing Act inspired plain language advocates around the world, and has resulted in a global movement to have other governments adopt similar legislation. The purpose of International Plain Language Day is to celebrate the achievements of those persons around the world who are working to make materials available to the public that are clear, concise, usable, and written in plain language.
Earlier this year William C. Burton, author of Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, and founder and Chairman of the Burton Awards Program that honors lawyers and law school students who use clear and concise written language, discussed the importance of the use of plain language in the legal arena. Upon accepting the 2011 Blackstone Award from the Friends of the Law Library of Congress, he noted:
I want to tell you that I feel that we could strike a fatal blow, if we were to form what I refer to as the Universal Law Reform Pact. The new pact would involve the courts, the Congress, and all counselors of law, and together everyone would agree to require clear, concise, and comprehensible writing in every aspect of law. That means communications, statutes, forms, rules, regulations at every level of government, decisions, and memorandum of law. No more archaic expressions, turgid and inflated writing, and run-on sentences….[W]e took one step closer this year to our goal when the federal law…was enacted and required all executive agencies to use plain language in all their communications. It was a positive step forward, but nowhere near the finish line.
…[A]s part of the Universal Law Reform Pact, I propose that all members of the judiciary continue to comment on briefs that they receive. This was an — is an effective tool to drive home the importance of legal writing, and to also single out the noisome and offensive transgressors….[B]ut good writing should also be applauded when effectively — when effectively written….[I]f judges through wit or otherwise continue to shine a spotlight on legal writing, they will greatly contribute to the best ends of legal writing. I hope that one day, particularly through the Universal Pact I propose today, we will find a cure to this age-old affliction of legalese. When we do, it will be a great day in law, and a story with a very happy ending.
International Plain Language Day was originally proposed by Cheryl Stevens, a plain language advocate. The day appears to have struck a global chord for change in the way information is disseminated to the public. Since the initial proposal for an International Plain Language Day, plain language professionals around the world have mobilized in support. Celebrations are currently being planned in South Africa; Alberta and Ottawa, Canada; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC.
The plain language movement is spreading rapidly, with international and U.S. government agencies, state legislatures, and educational and business organizations promoting the use of plain language in official documents, legal document, journals, and school books. The State of Illinois recently enacted the Illinois Plain Language Task Force Act, the purpose of which is to:
Conduct a study on, and to propose legislative measures designed to realize (1) the potential benefits of incorporating plain language in State government documents, statutes, and contracts into which the State enters; and (2) how plain language principles might be incorporated into the statutes governing contracts among private parties so as to provide additional protections to Illinois consumers, to reduce litigation between private parties over the meaning of contractual terms, and to foster judicial economy.
The use of plain language in official documents will certainly help to achieve the goal of transparency in government. What effect, however, will the use of plain language have on the future of jurisprudence? Will plain language help to clarify poorly written court documents, or will it just highlight the poor writing? Will lawyers begin writing in a clear and concise manner? Can “legalese” be “cured” through the use of plain language? What do you think?