Plain Language

Clarity Awards for Spring 2000


by George Hathaway

This article was originally accompanied by several tables. To see the tables, refer to pages 526 – 529 of the May issue.

We give Clarity Awards to legal documents that are written in plain English, without legalese. We do this to support 1) the Plain English Committee’s goal of promoting the use of clear writing by legal professionals, 2) State Bar Goal VII—Public Understanding of and Respect for the Justice System and Profession, and 3) State Bar Goal VIII—Openness of the Profession.

We give our first Clarity Awards for the new century to documents written by the Michigan Townships Association, Legislative Services Bureau, Department of Attorney General, Comerica Bank, and several private practitioners.

Laws

Resolutions

•Resolution on Land Use, adopted by the Michigan Townships Association on January 21, 2000, was written by Pat McAvoy, Director of Legislative Affairs. The clear style of this resolution should be a model for all future resolutions in this century. See Figure 3.

Most of the recently written Michigan statutes, administrative rules, and Opinions of the Attorney General are now in plain English. Therefore, each time we give our Clarity Awards, we try to select a recent statute, administrative rule, and Opinion of the Attorney General that illustrates this clear style.

Statutes

•1999 PA 94, Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Act, by Dale Mattis, is an excellent example of the clear style in which most Michigan statutes are written.

Rules

•Likewise, R 408.41006a, Employer Responsibilities for Lifting and Digging Equipment, by Connie Munschy, Chief, Safety Standards Division, Bureau of Safety and Regulation, is an excellent example of the clear style in which most Michigan administrative rules are written.

Opinions of the Attorney General

•Finally, Attorney General Opinion No. 7016, Appropriation of county funds to private organization for senior citizen services, by Attorney General Jennifer Granholm and Assistant Attorney General Treva Truesdale, is an excellent example of the clear style in which Opinions of the Attorney General are written.

Lawsuit Papers

Most lawsuit papers in Michigan still contain unnecessary legalese. The problem used to be that the formbooks were written in legalese. But more and more formbooks are now being published that contain lawsuit forms written in plain English. The latest is Michigan Civil Procedure, published by the Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education, and edited by Kathleen Lang, Hon. Susan Bieke-Neilson, the Honorable Robert Young, Jr., and Kay Holsinger. This book is excellent. The explanations of civil procedure are clear, and the book contains many forms for complaints, motions, orders, and other lawsuit papers that are written clearly and concisely, without legalese. See Figure 4.

Answer

•Answer and Affirmative Defenses in Oley v Monroe County Library System, by Bruce Laidlaw and Frederick Lucas. It is hard to find answers that are examples of plain English. This is a good one.

Judgment

•Judgment of Divorce form used by Peter Katz. We have given previous awards to divorce-judgment forms that are used in Michigan. Here is another good example.

Contracts

Consumer-Finance Contracts

•Credit Card Agreement of Comerica Bank, by Patricia Fancy, First Vice President, Legal Department. This agreement proves once again that consumer-finance documents can be voluntarily written in clear language (plain English), and that legalese is not required by complexity, case precedent, statute, or precision.

Insurance Contracts

How to Draft and Interpret Insurance Policies, by Kenneth S. Wollner. We normally give Clarity Awards only to primary documents, such as contracts that have been written in the actual practice of law, rather than secondary writings, such as books on how to write contracts. However, we make one of our exceptions in giving an award to this excellent book. In his chapter on style, Mr. Wollner writes: "There is a strong doctrinal basis for plain language in the construction of insurance policies." He backs this up with many clearly written examples.

Additional Examples from Clarity-Award Documents

We recognize and promote change and progress with our Clarity Awards. We don’t claim that they are perfectly written legal documents—if there is such a thing—but they are plainer than traditional documents of their kind and less pitted with legalese. We recommend that you write your documents as clearly as these examples, and if you notice something you think could be written even more clearly, don’t just criticize the document—write a document that is even better and send it to us for a future Clarity Award.



George Hathaway
George Hathaway is a senior real estate attorney at the Detroit Edison Company and chair of the Plain English Committee of the State Bar of Michigan.


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