The Linguistic Difficulties of Comparative Legal Systems

Those who work within the Dutch legal system are constantly challenged by the requirement to find an ‘English’ translation that aptly describes an element pertinent to an alternative set of laws and regulations. In most given situations, translating ‘literally’ rarely works effectively. Especially within the sphere of legal language, literal translation can present serious inaccuracies.

As a student of Law & a GDL scholar at the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn in London, I have had experiences whereby I have learnt to relish the differences between the Common and Civil legal systems within the European Union. As a Senior Trainer in Legal English at Taleninstituut Nederland, this interesting diversity presents us on occasion with serious language issues.

Lord Denning, ex – Master of the Rolls in the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice in London said “Words are the lawyers’ tools of trade.” (Lord Denning, The Discipline of Law, 1979, p.5)

How right he was. Whether in court or drafting legal documents, words are all a lawyer has. There is no environment where language is of paramount importance than in the legal world.  Lawyers and other legal professionals need to communicate accurately and will be held accountable for the information imparted to clients.

How to overcome potential language issues presented by two essentially different legal systems? Often, there is no actual ‘word’ in existence to succinctly and aptly describe the matter at hand.

Oddly, the main problems that have arisen are due to historical matters. Modern Legal English is a ‘beast with many faces’. Legal English today reflects a mixture of a variety of historical sources with roots in both French and Latin. The structure of the Latin language has somehow been retained to create the somewhat ornate structure of modern Legal English. Not easy to comprehend for the ‘layman’, remaining one of the main criticisms of the modern linguistic form which at best is long winded and at worst can be rather bombastic.

The Dutch language in general – and additionally, Dutch legal language – is far more succinct and holds itself far closer to brevity than is the case with Legal English. This is the main difference between the two languages in general and more so in a legal setting.

TalenInstituut Language Learning Tip:

Research and a certain linguistic flexibility are necessary to discover the best solution for the linguistic problem. In my experience, the solution lies in having knowledge of both legal systems. Sometimes, a linguistic compromise can be found by ‘playing’ with the language to a certain degree. A phrase comprising a small amount of words may become a far longer phrase to retain total accuracy. In my view, this does not matter. The most important thing to remember is that accuracy is of the essence and collaboration with clients is essential to find the best balance between two legal systems and two different ways of communicating.

Here at TalenInstituut Nederland (The Dutch Language Institute) we understand the needs that companies face as well as the fears individual learners feel. This is why we offer flexible, fully customised Business (and Legal) language courses to businesses and individuals. Through a process of interviews and meetings we establish the unique needs and competence of our clients and design each and every course around those. To find out more about our Business and Legal Language courses, visit the main body of our website and ask us for a quote:

© Taleninstinuut Nederland

Victoria Laws

Senior Trainer Legal English

Tevreden deelnemers en opdrachtgevers, daar doen wij het allemaal voor. Bijzonder blij zijn wij dan ook met feedback van tevreden klanten zoals deze van Hugo Klein van het Openbaar Ministerie.