Judgments in Plain Language

Dama Sheshadri J has highlighted the importance of employing plain language while drafting central legislations.

Two weeks ago, Dama Sheshadri Naidu J of the Bombay High Court wrote an op-ed on the importance of plain language legislation. Bemoaning that Section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 is effectively incomprehensible for lay-persons, Justice Naidu proposed redrafting this central legislation in plain English. Pointing to efforts in the UK and USA, he stressed that citizens should be able to understand the law that governs them.

While Naidu J’s observation is indeed accurate for legislations, it also rings true for judgments. The problem of legal language being inaccessible to laypersons is evident when one reads the courts’ judgments. The prose is notoriously difficult to understand, even for seasoned legal practitioners. For example, consider this paragraph from the Manohar Nathurao Samarth v Marotrao and Ors judgment:

A tricky issue of statutory construction, beset with semantic ambiguity and pervasive possibility, and a prickly provision which, if interpreted literally, leads to absurdity and if construed liberally, leads to rationality, confront the court in these dual appeals by special leave spinning around the eligibility for candidature of an employee under the Life Insurance Corporation and the declaration of his rival, 1st respondent, as duly returned in a City Corporation election. A tremendous trifle in one sense, since almost the whole term has run out. 

The paragraph tries to convey that this case was a special leave petition revolving around the legitimacy of the election of a LIC employee to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation.

Judgments are not necessarily meant only for other judges and advocates. After all, a court’s public interest and public reasoning function mandate that it should be intelligible and understandable to the general public. This is because what is at stake before the courts are crucial issues that have the potential to impact the lives and welfare of millions of citizens.

Of course, the law is a specialised branch of knowledge, and so a certain amount of legalese is unavoidable. Nonetheless, civil society actors and lawyers have to make an effort to convey these aspects in an accessible and engaging manner.