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Emergency services need plain words, says 7/7 inquest

[29 May 2011] The inquest into the London terrorist attack on 7 July 2005 ended in March this year with a plea for plain English from coroner Lady Justice Hallett (see Pikestaff 47). On 6 May, Lady Hallett returned to the Royal Courts of Justice to outline recommendations under rule 43 (of the Coroner’s Rules 1984), which aims to prevent future deaths. Rule 43 allows a coroner to report, to the appropriate agency, circumstances in which further deaths could happen unless the agency takes action.

Victims’ families had made 32 recommendations to the coroner, including ‘use of plain English by emergency services’, and Lady Hallett’s report included the following paragraphs on ‘the use of plain English’: 

  • 172. The bereaved families submitted that all the organisations which were represented in the inquest proceedings should give urgent consideration to the use of ‘plain English’ in managing major incidents. This submission reflected the fact that, in some places, the procedures and plans were bedevilled by jargon. I accept that the proper use of acronyms and mnemonics (such as ‘CHALET’ standing for Casualties, Hazards, Access, Location, Emergency and Type) contribute significantly to the important aim of communicating information speedily and helpfully. However, the use of complex acronyms and unnecessary jargon may also confuse and impede communication. It tends to undermine a proper understanding of the roles and intentions of members of the other emergency services, and so hinder the coordination of effort. In a life-threatening situation everyone should be able to understand what everyone else is saying and what they are trying to do. This problem is not new. I note that in the course of his Rule 43 report arising out of the Inquest into the death of Jean-Charles de Menezes (January 2009), Sir Michael Wright observed that, in some areas, police terminology had tended to confuse rather than to clarify understanding. Even longer ago, Desmond Fennell QC recommended in his report that London Underground should rewrite its rule book and its appendices ‘in plain English’ (recommendation 93(i)).

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