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Researching Reform: Language and the law - simple doesn't mean stupid

Date:1 SEP 2015
Whether you take the view that legal jargon is an integral part of the culture inside the justice system, or offers an efficient labelling tool for the speedy processing of information, law is no longer a selective world but a communal one; and everyone wants to speak the language.

 Blame the internet and a growing social conscience online, but simplifying language in law has been one of the defining phenomena for the UK justice system in the twenty-first century. For Family Courts at least, coming into contact with parents, children and extended family members who are not trained to deal in family law jargon, pressure to change the way we use language has contributed to wide-scale reform. The most notable to date, Mr Justice Ryder's recommendations for modernising the family justice system, included looking at the way terms and phrases were being used and seeing how we could break those down and make them easier to understand. Despite this, much of the language still used in court and by lawyers and other professionals inside the justice system remains unnecessarily complex.

 Litigants in Person (LIP) continue to struggle with terminology inside the courts, with judges reporting delays inside their courtrooms as a result, and more time spent explaining phrases and processes. Sadly, the current guidelines seem to have done very little to address this problem, perhaps in large part due to the fact that legal jargon exists before and after the court process, with very little help for LIPs during those in-between moments when they are effectively without support.

 And it's not just the courts' use of language which causes difficulties. Language used inside state-run bodies like care homes also needs to change. A recent piece in the Guardian written by a children's rights worker outlines the impact poorly thought-out language has on children. Instead of living in a 'house' or 'home', they have to cope with terms like 'on site', and 'menu planner' rather than 'meal' or 'dinner'. It's such a simple thing, but words like these can make the difference between a child feeling supported or completely separated from the world around them. The article points out a potential source for persisting jargon: a defensive working culture which looks to minimise risk. As the author puts it, 'not on my watch'.

 This risk adverse culture has had a profound effect on the way words are used inside the child welfare sector. But it's not just scandals like Baby Peter or Victoria Climbie which have caused corners of the sector to react defensively in every day practice; it is an unrelenting balancing act involving management teams, goal-orientated culture and less than adequate child protection training.

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Simplifying language isn't just about using smaller words, or words which are more readily understood; it is also about enhancing a soft skills approach, so that language can be a vehicle for change. Soft skills are often overlooked in the family justice system. There is no room for them in representation - after all, a lawyer is not a counsellor or a therapist, and a judge's official remit does not include trying to get the best out of a witness by being compassionate. Social workers will often say that phrases like 'emotional words' are to be avoided, just in case they lead to attachments, bonds which will inevitably be broken in a transient and impersonal system. But should we really be using language to impose barriers, or remove them?

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is no stranger to the language dilemma. The heated debate over whether men and women who experienced sexual abuse as children should be called 'survivors' or 'victims' has caused a divide amongst the public, as well as those who have been abused. Some feel the term 'victim' embodies the origin of their experience as once vulnerable children who were taken advantage of. Others feel 'survivor' defines the way they have lived and coped with their experiences. The moral of this language conundrum must surely be, that in a discussion about what words we should use to define, support and nourish vulnerable adults and children, we must ask them first what kind of language they would prefer.

The family justice system has not been terribly good at engaging with the people who come through its doors. It still continues to try to reform and modernise without important feedback from parents and children, and wonders why modernisation is slow at best and, at worst, seemingly intangible. At a 2009 Channel 4 debate called 'Failure to Care', regarding children in care, a young man put his hand up at the end of the session. When he was invited to speak, he introduced himself and explained that he was in care as a child, and had found one aspect of the debate that night quite startling.

Not one person had mentioned the word 'love'.

If we are to improve the system and be at the forefront of family justice and child welfare, we will need to acknowledge that the system can only survive if we can find a place for soft skills like love, patience and empathy.

We can start by building humanity into our communication.

Natasha is legal researcher and copywriter working on child welfare projects. She also runs the website www.researchingreform.net. You can follow her on Twitter at @SobukiRa.

You can read Natasha's A Day in the Life column here.