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Review of  Handbook of Communication in the Legal Sphere

Reviewer: Lelija Socanac
Book Title: Handbook of Communication in the Legal Sphere
Book Author: Jacqueline Visconti
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.4584

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The study of legal communication has become a striving interdisciplinary field over the past fifty years. Communication in the realms of law and administration of justice is a complex phenomenon, facing problems presented by globalization, migration and multilingualism, and involving equality issues in access to justice in complex, multicultural societies.

The obscurity of legal language has been criticized in most legal traditions. An impulse towards improving transparency has been provided by numerous plain language movements. Another important topic is the reconstruction of meaning of legal texts: interpretation is a complex operation, involving issues of linguistic, situational, inter-textual, cognitive, cultural and ideological nature.

The handbook addresses many other important topics at the interface of language and law such as language policy and planning, forensic linguistics, and questions of ideology and power in the courtroom. In addition, the handbook presents different international legal settings.

The book is divided into four parts covering different aspects of legal communication. Each part consists of five chapters, with the exception of Part III, containing three chapters.

Part I: “The foundations of legal language” begins with Chapter 1: “Legal drafting” by Christopher Williams who defines legal drafting as writing texts which are legally binding and future oriented. Such texts may be enforced by a controlling authority, e.g. by a court of law. Some of the key features of legal drafting are analyzed, and legislative drafting is compared to contract drafting. The author points out some similarities and differences in drafting techniques in the common law and civil law systems. Thus, in the common law system both contracts and legislation tend to be far wordier than their civil law counterparts. The influence of plain language movements on legal drafting is also discussed. Possible developments for the future of legal drafting are outlined, with special reference to the impact of information technology.

Chapter 2: “The interpretation of laws” by Lawrence M. Solan introduces some problems of legal interpretation which arise because of the vagueness or ambiguity in law. The tension between the literal and purposive approaches is analyzed in detail. Much of the debate on statutory interpretation can be seen as a struggle between a rule-based approach, in which the ordinary meaning of a law’s words and a limited number of canons of construction are considered sufficient to determine a statute’s meaning, and a more eclectic approach, in which the statutory interpreter considers information specific to the enactment of the legislation, including reference to its purpose, which is found by examining the circumstances underlying its enactment. The purposive approach is standard procedure in civil law jurisdictions, which favor teleological inquiry, while a literal approach is preferred in common law systems. The chapter tries to describe which aspects of our linguistic capacity are most in tune with the values of a legal system, and where the goals of the legal system and language work at cross-purposes.

Chapter 3: “Language rights” by Janny HC Leung describes the historical, political and legal context of language rights, outlines relevant international and national human rights instruments, and examines the theoretical foundations and definitions involved in the language rights paradigm. She goes on to offer a detailed critique and to outline challenges facing the field. Language rights are often concerned with linguistic minorities, and minority languages are defined in opposition to the official language. A national language is usually a standardized variety with a written form and formal register which is suitable for official use. As the language of public life, competence in that language is a prerequisite for civil participation, access to resources, and upward social mobility. Other, co-existing languages are “minoritized” and often come to be seen as a threat to national unity. Globalization is a further source of pressure on minority languages, since the participation in the global economy requires the adoption of an international language. Minority language rights usually include educational rights and language use in other public domains such as the media and the courtroom. On the other hand, the question of the protection of dialects and immigrant languages largely remains open.

In Chapter 4: “Language planning and legal systems” Richard Powell reviews language planning as both an administrative practice and an object of academic analysis. He considers the conceptual implications for administrators and researchers of applying language planning to the law. Language planning in legal domains draws on at least three bodies of research: 1. descriptions of legalese and the sociology of legal language, 2. studies of legal translation and interpreting, and 3. analyses of bilingual communication. Changing the language of law has an important impact on the practice of law, which explains conservatism in the legal domain. Legal translation and interpreting aim to enable the language-disadvantaged to participate in monolingual legal systems. As to bilingual legal communication, code-mixing, code-switching and code-shifting can be found in legal discourse in some post-colonial settings. An account is provided of language planning implementation through status reform, corpus reform and acquisition planning. Planning should proceed cautiously, with periods of bilingualism bridging the older and newer legal media and registers.

Chapter 5: “Semantic processing of legal texts” by Tommaso Agnoloni and Giulia Venturi combines views and perspectives from computational linguistics and Artificial Intelligence. The goal of applying Artificial Intelligence methods to the legal domain is to teach computers how to reason with legal rules, how to perform legal interpretation by making explicit the content implicitly contained in legal documents, how to argue like an advocate, etc. The main challenge consists in finding a way to connect the computational models to tasks that lawyers perform and texts they use. Another challenge is that the legal content is tightly intertwined with common sense and knowledge of the world. In the legal domain the meaning is not intrinsically tied to a word itself but it stems from its specific use within the legal sublanguage. In addition, law simultaneously describes the events and regulates them. Moreover, a significant part of the knowledge conveyed by a legal document is only implicitly lexicalized. In addition, law is often expressed as a network of documents referring to each other through legal citations. Since law is strictly dependent on its own textual (linguistic) realization, modeling legal semantics should take into account a combination of both theoretical modeling and text analysis.

Part II: “Forensic linguistics and court setting”

Chapter 6: “Implicit legal norms” by Barbara Pasa and Lucia Morra proposes a functional taxonomy, showing how different types of implicit legal norms can be identified building on previous studies on cryptotypes and implicatures . The cryptotype is the underlying pattern to be revealed by logical or non-logical inferences from an explicit rule. Implicit patterns played a fundamental role in the law of so-called “primitive societies” where the law was unformulated, sources were implicit, acts were unspoken and the dichotomy between law and enforcement did not exist. From a methodological point of view, the analysis combines a functionalist approach, which emphasizes law-as-rules, with a hermeneutic approach in which rules and concepts are the signifiers of deeper cognitive structures, so that one may find the meaning of law outside the legal texts. To understand law, we must address the issues of multiple forms of legal communication which involve various social ordering situations (e.g. adjudication, legislation), actors (individuals, collective agents) and forms of justification (legal rules, precedents, customary practices, equity). The sense of the words in a legal message is bound up with the matrix of social relations through which they are generated. The research questions are whether it is possible to identify tacit rules that underlie and control social life in different legal communities and whether it is possible to understand how much they interfere with legal interpretation. As interpreters of the law, judges and lawyers cannot ignore the fact that a legal text will imply more than it says. The empirical cases focus on gender discrimination analyzed in a comparative perspective. Revealing the implicit information underlying legal provisions can help in tracing the way in which social and individual values contribute to the meaning given to legal texts in adjudication.

Chapter 7:” Authorship attribution analysis” by Sabine Ehrhardt provides a broad overview of the field, including the notion of idiolect as the basic assumption, the scope of forensic linguistic analyses, and the specific tasks that are requested by mandating parties or authorities. The author discusses the methods of authorship analysis, including qualitative, quantitative and automatic approaches. The objective of authorship profiling is the categorization of an author with respect to social influences and biographical aspects, the evaluation of author intentions and aims, and the assessment of circumstances under which a text was produced. In contrast to authorship profiling, text comparisons require at least two text samples for analysis. For the evaluation of findings, it is important to be aware of three relevant dichotomies: 1) consistency and distinctiveness, 2) intra-author variation and inter-author variation, 3) similarity and typicality.

Chapter 8: “Topic management in police-suspect interviewing” by Georgina Heydon provides an overview of linguistic contributions to the field. The planning and structuring of a police interview is a complex task where chronology must be combined with a division of evidence/intelligence. Because of the complexity of the interview structure, and the inclusion of two types of subject matter: direct evidence and indirect information or intelligence, police investigators have to find a way to manage various topics. Choosing the right strategy when changing the topic can have a dramatic impact on the rapport between participants, affect the capacity of interviewees to volunteer reliable information, and affect the admissibility of evidence. Three main features of police interviews are discussed: voluntariness, narrative accounts, and the right to silence. Each feature is analyzed using methods of Conversation Analysis, including turn-taking structures, preference, and topic management. As opposed to ordinary conversation where anyone can initiate a new adjacency pair, in an institutional interview only the professional party has access to initiations, which results from unequal power relations.

Chapter 9: “Forensic voice comparison” by Michael Jessen explains the general principles of forensic voice comparison, focusing on the notions of speaker-discriminatory power, intra- vs. inter-individual variation, similarity and typicality, multi-dimensionality and (in)dependence of different speaker-discriminatory features. The auditory-acoustic approach is distinguished from automatic and semi-automatic approaches.

Chapter 10: “Narrative practices and voice in court” by Chris Heffer discusses forensic narrative in the context of legal communication. Understanding forensic narrative helps us to understand better both the nature of the legal process and the nature of narrative. Since legal cases concern disputed stories of wrongdoing, narrative remains highly significant to the legal process in general and the trial context in particular. However, the institutional and evidential complexity of a trial, along with its anti-narrative legal constraints, challenge our literary- ad conversation-based conceptions of narrative. Two models of narrative navigation and voice projection are introduced showing how they are relevant to an analysis of narrative focusing on inequality and loss of voice at trial.

Part III: “Legal language outside of court”

Chapter 11: “Linguistic analysis in trade mark law: current approaches and new challenges” by Alan Durant and Jennifer Davis begins with a summary of the main legal measures governing trade-marks, taking European Union trade mark law as its main point of reference and introducing US law where appropriate. Although international conventions set rules and minimum standards for registered trade mark protection, the protection is almost exclusively national in scope. The authors describe how courts address language-related questions and analyze to what extent the understanding of communication in trademark law is compatible with accounts developed in linguistics. They examine an applied linguistic tradition of expert evidence and an interdisciplinary tradition aiming to understand trade marks in semiotic terms, as well as some “intermediate” studies which use linguistic scholarship to support arguments for changes in the law. Finally, they consider how linguistic contributions to trademark law might develop through further collaboration between lawyers and linguists.

Chapter 12: “Defamation, language and linguistics” by Roger W. Shuy provides definitions of defamation in US law, noting certain differences that apply in European jurisdictions. The author describes how American defamation laws developed over time, and provides an overview of the theory and tools used by linguists whose assistance is called upon by lawyers in defamation cases. These linguistic tools can be found in pragmatics, speech act theory, grammatical referencing, discourse framing, analysis of malicious language and analysis of conveyed meaning (e.g. innuendo). Six actual US defamation cases are analyzed. Such lawsuits illustrate how the felicity conditions of speech acts such as accusing, reporting, requesting, and apologizing, can provide evidence for determining whether or not defamation can be proved.

Chapter 13: “Future directions in law and popular culture: a British perspective” by Peter Robson discusses the nature of the link between the narrative structure of the courtroom discourse and the film, which can have important implications for legal practice. The topics discussed include legal scholarship and education, law and literature, law and film, and law and TV. The author’s goals are to examine law and popular culture as part of a mission to explore how law affects people in their daily lives and to illuminate the study of law and justice using popular culture as an accessible tool to achieve this end. It is instructive to assess whether or not the version of law and justice which is encountered in popular culture is supportive of the status quo, or contains a critique of the institutions and their working practices.

Part IV: “International legal settings”

Chapter 14: “Multilingual interpretation of European Union law” by Silvia Ferreri focuses on the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU where purposive interpretation is most often adopted. Advantages and disadvantages of the EU multilingual policy are discussed, as well as the consequences of considering all linguistic versions of EU legislation as equally authentic. The Court of Justice of the EU has stated that expressions used in European legislation have an independent meaning from that assigned to similar phrases in national law. When facing problems of interpretation, the concern is to safeguard the validity of EU acts whenever possible. At the national level, the parliament can correct a rule that has proved to be defective when implemented and submitted to judicial review. Given the complex and time-consuming process by which EU legislative acts are approved, interpreters try to reconcile differences between several language versions rather than accepting that the legislation is too vague to be implemented.

Chapter 15: “Contemporary Chinese law: a linguistic perspective” by Marina Timoteo discusses legal transplants resulting from modernization of Chinese law. Since modern Chinese legal language is largely a result of translation, the first step in understanding it is understanding legal translation, mainly based on the creation of neologisms introduced into the legal language to denote foreign legal concepts. Legal transplants are closely connected to the creation of new legal taxonomies, the process which started in the second half of the XIX century. Examples of the development of some key legal concepts through different stages of the Chinese legal modernization are provided, with legal uncertainty posing a major problem. The high percentage of polysemic words which blurs distinctions between legal concepts and categories is one of the features of uncertainty. A source of confusion at the phonetic level are assonances occurring with terms that have a similar, but not identical, pronunciation. An additional source of complexity is derived from the contamination between civil law and common law models. This is compounded by the renewed influence of legal language and taxonomies introduced during the period of the Republic of China. Finally, issues under consideration include the increasing influence of legal models from common law inserted into a taxonomy traditionally based on civil law models; the coexistence of different Chinese languages, the emergence of China as a global actor and the increasing globalization of its legal system.

Chapter 16: “Unity and varieties of Arabic as a legal language: practices of interpretation and translation” by Roberta Aluffi discusses legal Arabic as the language of the Islamic legal doctrine and an international legal language adopted by a number of international organizations. Literary Arabic includes classical Arabic, rooted in the language of the Qur’an, and modern standard Arabic which is used for written and oral formal communication. Arabic legal terminology evolves spontaneously. Changes take place mostly at the national level, since the state is the main source of legal rules. The linguistic drift between national legal languages usually consists in the use of different terms for the same meaning. Since legal Arabic is a multiform language, translation of legal texts from and into Arabic is a multiform task.

Chapter 17: “Law, language and communication in the Indian context” by Domenico Francavilla considers the complex multilingual situation in India, constitutional rules concerning official languages, the use of English as the language of the law and some issues concerning Hindi legal language. The Indian Constitution adopted Hindi as the official language of the Union, and English as a subsidiary language for official purposes. In addition, it recognizes several regional languages and provides for official languages at the State level. Although Hindi has gained in importance and is increasingly used as the official language of the Union, English remains the main language of legislation and of judgments. According to many authorities, the English language and the common law are now part of Indian culture in all respects.

Chapter 18: “The many languages of Japanese legal language” by Andrea Ortolani discusses the birth and evolution of Japanese legal language. The first wave of reception of laws dates back to the eighth century, when Chinese regulations were adopted in Japan, shaping its legal mentality. With the modernization of the country in the 19th century, the source of inspiration switched to the West as Japan started building its legal system following European models. Modern Japanese law can be considered as a complex structure made of multilingual and multicultural layers. Since Japan was the first East Asian country to modernize its legal system and jurisprudence, neighboring countries were eager to replicate its success and sent their students to the archipelago to study law. Japanese neologisms thus spread into the region, being adopted also in the modern Chinese legal language. In this way, the Chinese characters used as components of the neologisms of the Japanese legal science returned to the country that they left several centuries before, bearing new meanings and new knowledge.


The complex interrelations between language and law have been the topic of many publications (Capone&Poggi 2016-2017; Coulthard&Johnson 2010; Kurzon&Kryk-Kastovsky 2018; Solan&Tiersma 2012). The novelty of this handbook is twofold: first, most of the contributions are written by lawyers, and secondly, in addition to the Western legal traditions, a part of the handbook is dedicated to international legal settings, including Arabic, Chinese, Indian and Japanese legal language.

An extensive body of scholarly literature focuses on the search for universals or the essence of law, while this collection demonstrates that law is highly diverse. Rather than treating law as a body of doctrines, the studies in this volume closely examine specific legal practices and social interactions produced in national and international settings, using a variety of original methods, models and arguments. Although each chapter focuses on a particular type and setting of legal communication, together they cover a wide range of institutional procedures, geographical regions, and interactional practices. The book addresses what actually happens in legal practice, allowing readers to truly see legal communication at work.

The volume is very well organized and highly cohesive so that individual chapters clearly contribute to each wider topic. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in legal language and communication since it provides an excellent overview of the field, and offers a collection of articles that are interesting, informative, and well written.

Overall, this is a highly relevant, well researched and well-edited book which will certainly inspire future research. It will be of interest to advanced students of legal linguistics, researchers in language and law, jurilinguists, and anyone interested in the interface between language and law, particularly communication in the legal sphere.


Capone, Alessandro & Francesca Poggi (eds.). 2016-2017. Pragmatics and law: philosophical perspectives. Berlin: Springer.

Coulthard, Malcolm & Alison Johnson (eds.) 2010. The Routledge handbook of forensic linguistics. London: Routledge.

Kurzon, Denis & Barbara Kryk-Kastovsky (eds.) 2018. Legal pragmatics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Solan, Lawrence &Peter M. Tiersma (eds.) 2012. The Oxford handbook of language and the law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lelija Socanac is full professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb, Croatia. She is the head of the Centre for Language and Law and the Foreign Language Department. Her research interests include multilingualism, contact linguistics, (historical) sociolinguistics, critical discourse analysis (discourse historical approach) and legal linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781614516699
Pages: 488
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