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LEGAL WRITING STYLE GUIDE (1): CONSISTENCY

Look at the following, short extract from a legal letter:

“You signed a legally binding sale agreement with our client on the 19th February. The contract you executed states that the goods to be delivered under the arrangement is 1,000 computer hard drives. The contract for the supply of the items provides that delivery should take place on the 28th February. You did not furnish the consignment on the 28th February. You are therefore in breach of the terms of the contract of sale.”

When you draft or write a legal document, sometimes you have to refer to, or mention, the same thing several times. It can seem boring to keep using the same word, or phrase, over and over. This is natural. Nobody wants their writing – even their legal writing – to look boring and dull. However, look at the extract again. This time I have put certain words and phrases in bold. Look at these words and phrases. Can you see any problem?

“You signed a legally binding sale agreement with our client on the 19th February. The contract you executed states that the goods to be delivered under the arrangement is 1,000 computer hard drives. The contract for the supply of the items provides that delivery of the subject matter of the arrangement should take place on the 28th February. You did not furnish the consignment on the 28th February. You are therefore in breach of the terms of the contract of sale.”

You may have noticed that the words and phrases in bold are variations (or synonyms) of other words or phrases used in the extract. Can you place the words or phrases, in bold, into groups?

The words or phrases can be placed into four groups:


1. signed - executed

2. sale agreement – contract – contract for the supply – arrangement – contract of sale

3. goods – items – subject matter – consignment

4. delivery – furnish



The words and phrases in each of the groups essentially refer to the same thing. For example, the words and phrases in group 2 all refer to the legally binding contract which the parties signed (or executed) on the 19th February.


What’s the problem?

The main problem is that using different words and expressions for the same idea may create confusion in a legal document. Yes, you want your legal writing to be interesting to read. However, the person reading it may misunderstand. For example, is the writer referring to different things when they refer to the contract as an ‘agreement’, a ‘sale agreement’, or a ‘contract for the supply’?

A key rule of legal writing is to be consistent. If you change the way you refer to something, the reader may think you have changed your meaning. The reader may then be confused or misunderstand what you mean: you want to avoid this. Confusion in the extract could be easily avoided by, for example, referring to the 1,000 hard drives as ‘the goods’ (or something similar) and the legally binding agreement as ‘the contract’ (or something similar).

Exercise

Can you re-write the extract to make it more consistent? You can change some of the wording, if you wish. I have given a suggested answer, below.

Suggested Answer

You signed a legally binding contract with our client on the 19th February. The contract states that the goods to be delivered is 1,000 computer hard drives. The contract also provides that delivery of the goods should take place on the 28th February. You did not deliver the goods on the 28th February. You are therefore in breach of the terms of the contract [or ‘in breach of contract’].

You will see that this version is both shorter and clearer. These are both good qualities in legal writing.

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2020

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