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Plain language and the courts

[8 Dec 2016] Judge Peter Thornton, the chief coroner, has told his colleagues to use plain English after a jury was asked to determine ‘the polarity of the dichotomy’ in the case of Sean Jackson, 26, who died at Elmley prison in Kent (reports The Times, 20 July 2016). At the High Court, Judge Thornton and Lord Justice Beatson said the phrase, used by the assistant coroner for Mid Kent and Medway, was not helpful.

Meanwhile, a 17-page judgment by Mr Justice Peter Jackson has been widely commended for its plain language (full judgment: Lancashire County Council v M [2016] EWFC 9).

It begins: ‘This judgment is as short as possible so that the mother and the older children [12 and 10] can follow it.’

The judgment makes much use of short paragraphs, contractions, short sentences and the active voice. The tone is humane but brusque and direct. It refers to the activities of Mr A, a white British Muslim convert who wanted to take his children to Syria under the guise of a trip to Disneyland, Paris. It explains why the children should have only limited contact with him. At the time, Mr A was facing trial for trying to buy guns and ammunition. The Times (15 Sept 2016) says it understands Mr A has since been convicted. 

Since parts of the judgment are as poignant as they are direct, it’s worth quoting a short passage in full:

‘For several weeks before Mr A was arrested in November, he was being secretly recorded by the police. I have read a lot of those recordings. They show what Mr A really thinks and how he hides it from the mother and the children.



In the recordings, Mr A says that he would sacrifice his life for his religion. He shows his hatred for this country because we are [cont]


 

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