The meanings of words in law are not the same as those we use every day.
If you read the text of a legal document, you must use legal definitions for each word in the document if available.
Additionally, you must check to see if anything in each definition is a legal term.
This is part of my Legal Self Defense series, designed to provide those who went to public school with a short, concise, easy to digest overview of how to access the law. For more information, see the introduction.
When doing law research, be sure to find the controlling law.
Legal English is not English
If you read the law, chances are good that it does not mean what you think it means.
Most people do not realize that we have two very distinct forms of english:
- English - the common language we use on a day to day basis
- Legal English - a very formal, unchanging language used for law
This wouldn't be such a big deal if this were clarified to everyone in our schools, but because most people don't know there is a difference, they almost always end up reading the law wrong.
Legal english must be different for a number of reasons, the main ones being:
- Our language changes over time, sometimes dramatically
- We have many words in our language with multiple definitions that cannot always be determined by context
Over time, the meaning of english words change, sometimes drastically.
Consider the following (fake) law:
Naughty men may register at city hall to get help finding food and shelter.
Read in normal english...
- Today: Badly behaved men may register at city hall to get help finding food and shelter
- Years Ago: Evil and Immoral men may register at city hall to get help finding food and shelter
- Long Ago: Men who have naught may register at city hall to get help finding food and shelter
As you can see, it would be impossible to write good law if you didn't know what a word would mean decades from the date it was written.
In legal english, the meaning of words change much more slowly than they do in common english.
Having words with multiple meanings that could be confused in context makes common english much less than optimal for stating the law.
Consider the following (fake) law:
Any man with nails over one inch long shall be fined twenty five dollars.
Are we talking about fingernails, toenails, or thin metal pieces used in construction?
Legal terms are english words that have specific definitions when used in writing legal documents.
Because of this, until you have experience reading legal documents you have to pretend that you don't know what anything means when reading the law and have the following handy:
- A legal dictionary - preferably from around the time the law was written. I like bouvier for looking into constitutional issues.
- An english dictionary - preferably from around the time the law was written
As you read, you should do the following for each and every word, using the first match you find as the proper definition:
- Check the law you are reading to see if it overrides the definition
- Check the legal dictionary to see if it defines the word
- Check the english dictionary for the definition
Reading codified law vs plain text law
When law is written, it is written in legal english. Groups of people then integrate it into codified law.
Reading law as originally written:
If you can get your hands on the text of the law as originally written, you can more easily get an accurate view of what the law means.
To do so, simply do the following for each word written:
- Find any/all terms defined within the document itself and use the given definition for them
- For all other words, check a law dictionary written at about the same time as the law was written
- If there is no definition in the law dictionary, check a normal english dictionary written as close to the time that the law was written as possible.
When doing this, be sure to look up legal definitions for any word used in the legal definition of a term. Yes, this leads one down rabbit holes, but over time you will build your legal vocabulary and no longer have to look each term up.
Reading codified law:
If you only have access to codified law you have a lot of extra work to do in order to get a clear picture of what law means.
Code really does mean that the law was encoded and not just organized for clarity.
When checking to see if words are re-defined (as outlined above), you must make sure to check the following for special definitions:
- the section you are reading
- the chapter you are reading
- the title you are reading
- any general provisions or definitions for the entire code being read
The definitions for words can change from section to section, chapter to chapter, and title to title... so be very careful when reading code.
Code is very hard for most people to read properly.
Punctuation and Capitalization
When reading the law, you need to be aware that both punctuation and capitalization are important.
The following is a maxim of law:
Two things similar are not the same
If you are reading a law and see very similar phrases that use different capitalization then tread carefully and be aware that the things being talked about are different.
Usage of the word "includes"
Often, you will see a law that states something includes something else.
When reading law, this means that it includes ONLY those things listed unless it clearly states otherwise.
It takes a lot of work to properly read the law, but the method of doing so is not difficult.
If you stay away from reading codified law and instead read case law, the common law of england, and statutes at large you will be less prone to misinterpreting law.
While I cannot cover everything I've stumbled across in reading law, the above are the main things that I get good use out of knowing. Hopefully they will help you as well.
- I am not a lawyer
- This is not legal advice
- Use anything I write at your own peril.
About this article
This is part of my Legal Self Defense series. Read the introduction for more information.
If you haven't done so, be sure to also see finding the law as it does no good to read the wrong law.
If you like what you see, you can browse other articles by clicking my name below. If you are interested in seeing this series as it is published, be sure to follow me and check your Feed tab to see articles from those you follow.
Having covered some of the core foundational ideas needed to make use of the law, upcoming segments of this series will start covering the actual process of law.
Be well! @tony.jennings