Harriet Harman’s campaign against ‘lawyer-speak’
Harriet Harman has got herself back in the news by doing something rather good. She is the minister for constitutional affairs and last week introduced legislation which is more notable for the way in which it is drafted than for the change to the law it effects.
The Bill in question is quite remarkable, for it is written in something called ‘plain English’, which is what we all used to speak before the lawyers somehow attained their total cultural, political and linguistic hegemony over the rest of us at some point towards the end of the last century. Actually, the Bill is written in two languages: there’s that hideous, ubiquitous thing, lawyer-speak, on one side of the page and a translation into ‘plain English’ on the other side. You may be inclined to ask, why bother with the lawyer-speak at all, if the Bill already exists, de facto, in a language all of us can understand. And further to that, how long will it be before some weasel-faced lawyer insists that there is a discrepancy — or perhaps merely the shimmering of daylight — between the legalese and the plain English translation? And which version will take precedence in a court of law?
In fairness to Ms Harman, she has thought about this. She thinks that maybe in future Bills should be written only in plain English — an excellent idea and one which, hopefully, will see a large number of law firms traipsing towards the bankruptcy courts. I know Ms Harman thinks this, because she said as much while being interviewed on the BBC’s Sunday AM programme, wherein Andrew Marr attempts to look engaged and interested as he talks to Ian Wright about football, or to the gorgeous, pouting Katie Melua about how horrible it is that there are starving people in the world and all those wars and stuff.
Harriet Harman, though, operating from within a government of lawyers, deserves our thanks and respect for this. But this being New Labour, there is a predictable irony hiding in the small print of the story. The legislation in question is the Coroner Reform Draft Bill (2006) — which is, by its nature, of interest and relevance only to people in the legal profession. That is to say, people who would have understood the Bill anyway in its more traditional, abstruse, overwritten and pernickety form. The rest of us will have no use for it whatsoever. And the cynic in me wonders if this may be the point: it’s OK, henceforth, to write legislation in plain English when that legislation will affect only members of the legal profession. But it’s altogether too dangerous an idea to be tried out on stuff that affects the hoi polloi. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if more widely applicable legislation were to be written in plain English?
The Hunting Act (2004)
‘It is against the law to take pleasure from killing foxes. You can shoot them or club them or kick them to death, or hang them up by their ears until they die of starvation. You can even get dogs to savage them, so long as it is not part of an agreeable social ritual which brings together rich, right-wing landowners and the forelock-tugging lickspittle rural morass of peasants and impecunious villagers. Wearing stupid clothes and parping on horns and so on. Also, you toffs, stop harassing mink, deer and hares. We’ll get back to you later on badgers. All that being said, there will be no attempt whatsoever to enforce this legislation.’
The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act (1997)
‘A couple of children have been rather badly bitten by some dogs these last couple of weeks. There’s a general view that we should do something about it, but we’re not absolutely sure what. After all, while there are a lot of concerned parents in the country, there are also a lot of dog-owners. And an election coming up quite soon! So what we’ve decided to do is to ban a species of dog which doesn’t officially exist, the Pit-Bull Terrier, together with a few other dogs — the Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, Fila Braziliera — which nobody has heard of but which sound, frankly, ominously foreign. Why would you want an Argie dog, anyway? What’s wrong with a bloody Labrador? After a month or so of intense and often embarrassing police activity, the execution of several blameless dogs and a public outcry, there will be no attempt whatsoever to enforce this wholly fatuous legislation.’
The Firearms Amendment Act (1997)
‘A nutter has just shot a load of kids in some school in Scotland. There’s an election coming up so we’d better do something — the press is going crazy. So we’ve decided to ban everybody, everywhere, from owning a gun. This legislation also applies to the British Olympic shooting team, which henceforth will have to train for their discipline in a foreign country. And to farmers who might wish to shoot rooks or gypsies. However — an important point — the legislation does not apply to Britain’s thriving community of criminals, who are not legally to be dissuaded from sawing off their shotguns and subsequently shooting innocent people whenever they want. We anticipate a substantial increase in the number of guns in circulation among bank robbers, Yardies, nutters, drug-dealers, etc., over the next ten years. Something like 27 per cent. Result!’
Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006)
‘Let’s be clear. We are not against freedom of speech. If you suggest that Islam is a bigoted and cruel ideology, you will not be prosecuted. If, however, you suggest that people who adhere to the rules of Islam are cruel and bigoted then we’ll bang you up. I know, I know, it’s a delicate point. Also, if you suggest that British-born Muslim people might one day launch a terrorist attack on the British mainland, you’ll have the plod round before you can say Allahu Akbar. To tell you the truth, we can’t make up our minds about whether Muslims are a race or simply adherents of an ideology. Muslims themselves don’t seem to be too sure, either. Anyway, this legislation only applies to people who would otherwise be classed as the most ghastly racists, i.e., the BNP and what have you. It does not apply to someone like Rowan Atkinson.’
And that’s just a few. You sort of hope Harriet Harman has her way and that future legislation is indeed written in words we can all understand. But you might also doubt it.