There were a few survivors of the old tongue: habeas corpus was reprieved because of its fame

Plain English by committee

The effect of the Woolf reforms was to replace one set of legal jargon with another

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Twenty-five years ago, on 26 April 1999, Lord Woolf’s Civil Procedure Rules came into effect. Replacing two existing sets of procedural rules for England’s civil courts, the new CPR was launched to much fanfare — all of England’s county courts closed for a day the week before in order to prepare for the great occasion — and had the laudable aim of creating a cheaper, simpler and more predictable dispute resolution process for everyone.

Whether the CPR managed to make English civil justice cheaper or simpler is, of course, very much open to doubt, as anyone who has been near an English court in recent years will know. But one lasting effect of the Woolf reforms was to purge English law of much of the specialised vocabulary it had developed over the centuries.

To Woolf’s supporters, this vocabulary — and anything in Latin in particular — was at the root of all that was wrong with English civil justice. The common refrain, in the words of a since-disgraced minister, was that Latin contributed to the “mystification of the law” (as opposed to the fact that the Income Tax Act 2007, say, is 773 pages long).

There was some private grumbling amongst lawyers, but few wanted to be seen as out of touch, the cardinal sin of the New Labour years. So “plaintiff” became “claimant”, “in camera” became “in private” and so on.

On the appointed day, the Plain English Campaign promised to have 2,000 of its members in courtrooms, ready to snitch on lawyers and judges who relapsed into the old language — the sort of garden-centre totalitarianism which makes one very glad that England was never subject to foreign occupation in recent memory.

There were a few survivors of the old tongue, too awkward to be purged entirely. The writ of habeas corpus, for instance, was reprieved because of its fame, though it is officially known today as a “writ of habeas corpus for release”, just so that everyone is clear as to what it does.

Similarly, pro bono was allowed to survive, because no suitable English-language replacement could be devised. The eventual alternative, “law for free”, was too horrifically twee even for modernisers.

This did not stop Lord Woolf from claiming years later that “one reason why pro bono is not playing its part in the provision of legal services as it should, is because of the very words pro bono”. As one commentator tartly remarked, is it really true that there are legions of lawyers desperate to do free legal work who are dissuaded by two small Latin words?

But as Latin was being kicked out of the front door, some of it managed to sneak in again from the back. For instance, the CPR did away with the venerable “writ”, one of the great administrative innovations of Anglo-Saxon England and as un-Latinate a word as exists in the English language.

Others of Lord Woolf’s linguistic innovations were simply baffling, even on his own terms

Its replacement was the unsightly “claim form”, even though both “claim” and “form” have Latin roots. The real sin of “writ” was not that it came from a dead language, but that it looked unusual to modernising eyes.

Others of Lord Woolf’s linguistic innovations were simply baffling, even on his own terms. Formerly, plaintiffs (sorry, claimants) happily issued third-party claims without the least difficulty. But Lord Woolf thought that this bit of relational vocabulary was too much for laymen to handle and renamed them to the evocative “Part 20 claim”.

“Part 20 of what?” the hapless member of the public may ask, unappreciative of the fact that the renaming was done so as to accommodate his limited intellect and vocabulary. Eventually Part 20 claims were renamed to “additional claims”. but as a leading legal drafting textbook points out, an “additional claim” can mean at least four different things, three of which do not fall under Part 20 of the CPR. The authors decided to stick with “third party claim” instead, in defiance of Lord Woolf.

(We note in passing that the CPR had 51 parts in 1998; today the numbering goes all the way up to Part 89. Habeas corpus on strictly Woolfsian principles should thus have become known as a Part 87 application. How many laymen know that “part” denotes a subdivision of a particularly long statute?)

Not all of the changes made by the CPR were bad ones. There is no reason, for instance, why the Anton Piller order and the Mareva injunction should be forever named after two long-defunct companies which happen to have been involved in what turned out to be landmark cases in the High Court around 1975.

But the overall result of the Woolf reforms, as far as legal language was concerned, was to replace one set of time-honoured specialised expressions with another set of jargon, this time drawn from the public sector linguistic register.

To the average member of the public, relying on a lawyer (if he can afford one), whether he gets to file a statement of case instead of a pleading remains, as it should, a matter of supreme irrelevance.

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