New Zealand Law Society - Successful transformation of legal documents

Successful transformation of legal documents

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The days of difficult and archaic language in contracts is a phenomenon that Christchurch law firm Saunders Robinson Brown wants to leave in the past.

The firm is undertaking a review of all its precedent documents with the aim of making the documents easy for clients to read and understand.

The considerable investment the firm has made has already been recognised, with Saunders Robinson Brown being named among the finalists in the 2015 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards.

This short-listing was in the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation section of the awards, and came as a result of its “translation” into plain English of a clause that had been used in an Agreement for the Sale and Purchase of Land.

The old

This is how the paragraph read before the firm transformed it:

“The purchasers shall indemnify and keep indemnified the vendors from and against all claims, demands, writs, summonses, actions, suits proceedings, judgements, orders, decrees, damages, costs, losses and expenses of any nature whatsoever which the vendors may suffer or incur in connection with loss of life, personal injury and/or damage to property arising from or out of any occurrence upon the land or the use by the purchasers of the land or any part thereof or to any person or the property of any person using or entering or near the land or occasioned wheresoever it may occur wholly or in part by any act, negligent default or omission by the Purchaser, his employees, customers , agents, invitees or licensees and any other person or persons using or upon the land with his consent or approval expressed or implied provided that this clause shall not make the purchaser liable to indemnify the vendor against any claim arising from the wilful or negligent act, neglect or default of the vendors or their agents, servants, invitees, contractors or employees.”

The new

The transformed, easy-to-read clause now states:

“The purchaser will compensate the vendor for any costs or losses that relate to:

  • the death of, or injury to, any person; and/or
  • damage to any property
  • resulting from :
  • anything that happens on the land; or
  • the negligent use of the land by the purchaser or by anyone who the purchaser allows to use the land,

unless that cost or loss was directly or indirectly the vendor’s fault.”

It is interesting to note that the original sentence, before it was re-written, was 176 words long.

Readability comparison

When this sentence is subjected to analysis using the Gunning Fog Index, a tool that measures the readability of English writing, the index score is a massive 77.45.

The index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading. A fog index of 12 requires the reading level of a high school senior (around 18 years old).

Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.

The Gunning Fox Index for the re-written sentence is 11.32. In addition, the text employs bullet points, which makes understanding even easier.

It is interesting to note that the score for this sentence is about the same as the Fog Index for Time magazine, which is around 11.

Saunders Robinson Brown’s commitment to plain English does not stop at the review it is undertaking of all precedent documents.

In addition, the firm has introduced plain English classes for graduates and new staff members, with the aim of maintaining the plain English philosophy firm-wide. The focus is on providing training so that everyone in the firm can write in a way that is understandable for the reader.

In the review of its precedent documents, the firm is being assisted by Christchurch-based Julie Hutton, principal of a consultancy named Plain English Law. Ms Hutton is also a notary public.

The winners of the 2015 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards were due to be announced at a function in Wellington last night (19 November).

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