Advocating for clarity: A call for judgments in plain language

Some judges employ dense prose as a means of showcasing their erudition or to conform to perceived standards of judicial traditions.

On March 9, 2024, Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud addressed the pressing need for judges to write judgments in a language comprehensible to the common people.

This call for the clarity in legal documentation resonates deeply in a system often shrouded in complex language and convoluted jargon, which pose significant barriers to comprehension for those outside the legal profession.

It is not the first instance CJI Chandrachud has urged judges to write judgments in plain language. In August 2022, the use of complex language in judgments prompted him to advocate for greater clarity and accessibility in judicial rulings.

A Bench of the CJI and Justice AS Bopanna emphasized the imperative for judges to eschew convoluted language in favour of straightforward, understandable writing. They underscored how complex and lengthy sentences obfuscate rather than elucidate legal decisions, thereby undermining the very purpose of justice delivery.

In India, judgments have long been typically laden with intricate legal terminology and labyrinthine syntax, rendering them nearly incomprehensible to individuals without a legal background. Some judgments prove perplexing even for seasoned lawyers.

For example, the sentence construction of former Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra was heavily criticized by lawyers and laypersons alike for its poor readability in the case of Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India & Ors. In this judgment, he had stretched the second sentence over 228 words, punctuated by over 6 commas and 17 instances of “and.” It raised doubts on whether one could really comprehend the essence of the decision.

One of the primary reasons for the prevalence of complex language in judgments is the tradition of legal formalism inherited from colonial times. The British legal system, upon which India’s judicial framework is based, emphasised verbosity and formality in legal documents. Despite the passage of time and advancements in legal education, this tradition has persisted, creating a barrier between the law and the people it is meant to serve.

Moreover, the use of complex language is often perceived as a marker of prestige and authority within the legal profession. Some judges employ dense prose as a means of showcasing their erudition or to conform to perceived standards of judicial traditions.

On this, US President Thomas Jefferson once said,

“In drafting statutes my fellow lawyers have the habit of making every other word a ‘said’ or ‘aforesaid’ and saying everything over two or three times, so that nobody but we of the craft can untwist the diction and find out what it means…”

King Edward VI is quoted to have said,

“I would wish that the superfluous and tedious statutes were brought into one sum together and made more plain and short so that men might better understand them."

The primary function of the judiciary is to deliver justice, and this mandate cannot be fulfilled if the judgments handed down by the courts remain unintelligible to the very individuals they are meant to serve. Justice is not merely about delivering verdicts; it is about ensuring that those affected by legal decisions understand the reasoning behind them.

By using plain language, judges can bridge the gap between the legal system and the general public, empowering individuals to comprehend and engage with the law.

Complex legal language obscures the rationale behind judicial decisions, leading to a lack of transparency within the legal system. When judgments are written in clear, simple language, they become more transparent, allowing citizens to understand the basis for court rulings.

This transparency fosters trust in the judiciary and holds judges accountable for their decisions, as they are required to articulate their reasoning in a manner accessible to all.

Judgments serve not only as legal precedents, but also as guides for compliance and implementation. When judgments are written in easy language, it becomes easier for individuals, organizations and government agencies to understand their rights and obligations under the law. Clarity in legal documentation reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation or confusion, thereby promoting adherence to court rulings and facilitating the effective enforcement of laws.

On contrary, complex judgments often lead to prolonged legal battles and appeals, as parties struggle to decipher the legal reasoning behind court decisions. By writing judgments in easy language, judges can minimize ambiguity and streamline the adjudicative process. Clear, comprehensible judgments reduce the likelihood of appeals based on misunderstandings or misinterpretations, thereby promoting efficiency within the judicial system and alleviating the burden on courts.

The Imperative to write judgments in easy language is not merely a matter of linguistic preference; it is a fundamental aspect of ensuring access to justice for all members of society.

By prioritising clarity and simplicity in legal documentation, judges can democratize the law, foster transparency and accountability, promote legal literacy, and enhance the overall effectiveness of the judiciary. CJI DY Chandrachud’s advocacy for plain language judgments is a step in the right direction towards creating a more inclusive and equitable legal system in India and beyond.

Today, numerous countries advocate for the use of plain language in drafting laws. Countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom have embraced this principle, with dedicated manuals and projects aimed at promoting plain language drafting.

In the United Kingdom, the Tax Law Rewrite Project (TLRP) stands out as a prominent example of plain language drafting. This initiative sought to rewrite direct tax legislation using modern language and concise sentences, making them clearer and simpler to comprehend. As a result, much of the modern legislation in the UK demonstrates a shift towards simpler drafting compared to earlier, more complex formulations.

Similarly, the United States has taken significant steps towards promoting plain language in government communication through the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This legislation mandates that federal agencies use clear and understandable language in official documents, ensuring that the public can easily comprehend and utilise government information.

While the approaches used in these jurisdictions may vary, they all share a common goal: to make official writing simpler by eliminating unnecessary obscurity and complexity. Given the benefits of plain language drafting in enhancing transparency, accessibility and public trust, it is evident that India too stands to benefit from such a legislative framework.

Therefore, it is imperative for India to consider enacting a law similar to the Plain Writing Act, which would require government agencies to adopt plain language in their official communications. By mandating the use of clear and understandable language in laws, regulations and other official documents, India can improve citizen engagement, facilitate compliance with legal requirements and enhance the overall effectiveness of governance.

Therefore, it is high time for India to follow suit and pass a law that mandates the use of plain language in judgment writing.

Ummar Jamal is a final year law student and National General Secretary of the J&K Students Association.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news