István Üveges: Plain and/or Simple?
The Plain Language Movement and its Possibilities in Hungarian Legislation
The Plain Language Movement (hereinafter: PLM) is a US-based initiative that can be seen as a field of research, a line of inquiry, a methodology, or even a branch of language education/language design. It mainly concerns the intelligibility of official (and in particular: legal) texts and therefore it is taught in law-focused or specialized legal trainings as well, with a focus on legal language and drafting.
Transparency and predictability of the law is a requirement of the rule of law, it is enough to mention the principle of ‘clarity of norms’ (‘normavilágosság’ in Hungarian), and that is what the PLM ultimately promotes: the understanding (intelligibility) of the law by non-lawyer recipients, i.e. in the case of laws and legal texts, the general public. The role of these requirements is greatly enhanced nowadays, since the increased flow of information resulting from globalization and technological progress has led to a quasi “juridification” of societies. (For a detailed explanation of the concept, see an analysis by Blickner and Molander here.) The law applies specific rules to more and more situations in life, and these rules are increasingly present in the everyday context.
In relation to this , there is an obvious need for citizens to understand as much as possible, and as easily as possible, the norms and, where appropriate, the specific decisions that are binding on them, is becoming increasingly important. Many times, national governments and administrations as well as supranational institutions issue drafting guidelines for lawmakers trying to sensitize them in this field.
In this paper, I will briefly describe research on PLM in Hungary, and the reasons behind the movements’ major successes overseas.
About the Plain Language Movement
PLM has a long-lasting history (Felsenfeld – Cohen 1981, Dorney 1988 etc.) in the Anglo-Saxon world. Since its very beginning in the late 1970’s, its guidelines (e.g. Federal Plain Language Guidelines, applied by US governmental agencies) and principles have become known in several other countries, even in non-English-speaking ones like Norway or Sweden (Nord 2018).
In the United States, the idea that citizens should be aware of and understand their rights and obligations was brought to the fore in the 1960s, and this provided the basis for the extension of individual empowerment not only to the existence of laws protecting consumers, but also to the wording of official documents. In the context of the PLM, this has primarily taken the form of standards for the language used in drafting (Finch 1985).
However, the subject of the Movement is a kind of analysis of language as a means of communication, its researchers were almost exclusively representatives of jurisprudence for a long time, while today it is best understood as a kind of interdisciplinary trend. From the very beginning, it has sought to formulate stylistic, syntactic and lexical recommendations, especially for the use of official language, with a view to improving the comprehensibility of texts (Tiersma – Solan 2012: 67-70).
The impact of PLM can be illustrated by examples from both the US and the EU. For instance, in 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Language Act of 2010 for strengthening the importance of effective and clear communication of the federal agencies, while in the European Union’s context, several Nordic countries have laws that regulate clear official communication. Nevertheless, Hungary has somewhat moderate practical results in the topic so far, at least as far as the lawmaking is concerned. On the one hand, according to the decision of the National Office for the Judiciary, 2017 was the “Year of Public Understanding” in the Hungarian courts. Within the framework of this, a mandatory training was also held in all courts of the country on “Public Understanding and Professionalism in the Application of Court Law”. Among its declared objectives was the promotion of “user-friendly” communication by court organisations and the emphasis on the service character of the courts. Although official information is limited, it is known that the National Tax and Customs Administration also runs (or at least has run) an accessibility programme, which, according to their statement (and the position advertised on their job portal at the time), was also planned to include a linguistic expert.
Furthermore, perhaps the most important achievement is the wording of IRM (Ministry of Justice and Law Enforcement) Decree 61/2009 (XII. 14.) on the drafting of legislation. The text of the Regulation (§ 2) stipulates that “The draft legislation shall be drafted in accordance with the rules of the Hungarian language, in a clear, plain and unambiguous manner.” However, its shortcoming is that the Decree does not contain any reference to the principles on the basis of which it considers feasible to measure comprehensibility, nor does it contain any reference to the development of a “quality assurance system” regarded to the issue.
After a thorough examination, one can find references to the so-called plain language guidelines (eg. Cutts 1995, 1999) in documents issued by the European Commission as well, e.g.: Europa Web Guide; the official rulebook for the European Commission’s web presence or the English Style Guide for authors and translators in the European Commission (for more on the objectives of EU language policy, see e.g. Petra Láncos’ dissertation). Even though these are typically not legislative acts in the narrow sense, the simple fact, that such guidelines (like the Article 29 Working Party’s guidelineon the General Data Protection Regulation – aka. ‘GDPR’) makes a connection between the PLM-related literature, and the recommended interpretation of words, like “clear” and “plain” language indicates the impact of the Movement world-wide.
Main findings of Law and Language Studies in Hungary
In a modern sense, Hungarian research on the interaction between language and law, which focused on the issue of intelligibility, began in the 1980s with regard to written texts, and in the early 2000s to spoken (legal) language slowly became the focus of interest (cf. Vinnai 2014a).
The first such empirical research (regarding the spoken legal language) was carried out at the University of Miskolc (with the participation of lawyers and linguists) under the name of “Language use in legal proceedings. Language translation and fact construction in the process of establishing legal facts” FKKP-project (Szabó 2010). Its main objective was to study the intralingual translation of the lay narratives in criminal proceedings into legal (technical) language statements during police and court evidence. Among the main results, Vinnai (2014b: 62) highlights the confirmation of the hypothesis that the effectiveness of linguistic communication is also a fundamental condition for the effectiveness of factual findings, and therefore the awareness of linguistic and pragmatic regularities in the application of law is also necessary. In this connection, Vinnai points out confirming the hypothesis that intelligibility should be regarded as a fundamental requirement of the right to a fair trial – which contributes to reducing vulnerability, too (ibid. 63).
The link with the linguistic dimension of proceedings can be described as follows: “From a legal point of view, a procedure cannot be fair if it is not fair from a linguistic, communicative point of view. If, therefore, problems, gaps or distortions arise in the interactions between lay people and legal professionals, this has a significant impact on the fact-finding process and ultimately on the final outcome of the proceedings, the judgment.” (Ibid.: 63).
Another aspect of the linguistic dimension of Legalese can be connected to the issue of “access to justice”. In its original use, this definition was intended to draw attention to the unequal distribution of social resources (e.g. time (needed for administration), money, education, etc.), the lack of which may hinder the invocation of law (cf. Szilágyi 2016). On the other hand, taking into account the intelligibility of communication for the layperson, it can also be extended to the deficiencies in the ability to enforce law in the absence of (commonly) understandable wording.
As a continuation of the above FKKP research, between 2014 and 2018 other investigations were carried out (Linguistic Aspects of Due Process. Impact of legal language on access to justice, the results and main findings can be seen here), where the main interrelated questions were the following:
(i) To identify the differences between legal and lay language that may hinder understanding,
(ii) whether the obstacles could be an obstacle to a violation of due process and access to justice,
(iii) if both of the above are met, to propose solutions (Vinnai: 2014b: 67).
Accordingly, during the research, the contributors also used corpus linguistic methods to analyze in detail the linguistic features of Hungarian legal (technical) language. Quantitative studies have revealed specificities that are considered to be a barrier to understanding; the nominal nature of legal texts, the high number of impersonal structures and the relatively high number of light-verb constructions. In terms of text length, almost all sub-corpora are characterized by the use of words longer than colloquial, but the average length of sentences is also strongly dependent on the specific text.
Self-regulation as a potential way?
Although some legislation had already declared the importance of using plain language, the publication of the summary opinion of the working group on the analysis of case law established to examine the subject of “Decision Drafting” on 17 January 2013 by the then President of the Curia (the Supreme Court of Hungary) can be considered a significant leap forward in comparison to these (Orosz: 2014).
The working group examined the practice of the civil and administrative sections of the Curia in the context of a dedicated study of drafting and the aspects of document drafting that support the clarity of the text. The study involved representatives of several disciplines, which is in line with the interdisciplinary nature of the problem of comprehensibility issues.
The mentioned international precedents of the investigation include the Magna Carta of Judges adopted in Strasbourg in 2010 and the Vilnius Declaration. The former document states in point 16 that “Court documents and court decisions must be drafted in plain, simple and clear language”, the latter stresses that “The judiciary must take the necessary steps to strengthen public confidence in the courts. (…) The drafting of judgments and other court decisions in clear and comprehensible language is essential to achieve this goal” (cf. Orosz: 2014).
The IT segment of the working group looked at the possibilities for automated support for decision support in more detail. Some of their main findings on implementation options concerned the improvement of integrity between different administrative systems, while a larger group focused on the accelerated insertion of often repetitive but essentially template-like elements of bound text variants. The latter include, for example, the possibility of selecting the subject of the lawsuit from a list or the automatic insertion of the relevant text after the legal text has been indicated.
Along the lines of faster anonymization of sensitive data, reference is made to the use of computational linguistic advances such as the use of name recognition algorithms that would allow the automatic marking of personal names, amounts of money, and personal identification data within the document. In addition, there are scattered references to other solutions, such as the construction of a ‘one-click’ referencing system between paragraphs, but these are not of linguistic relevance (Orosz: 2014, Annex 4).
In its summary, the IT working group also mentions that a system based on their recommendations could fulfil the function of a kind of intelligent text editor, which is already used in abroad in several fields of practice. However, the document, also available as an annex to the summary opinion, known as the Style Guide, contains more far-reaching linguistic proposals.
In addition, obviously, there have been a number of other initiatives, such as the (above mentioned) “Year of Public Understanding” announced by the National Office of the Judiciary in 2017, or the National Tax and Customs Administration’s public understanding programme. However, due to the limitations of the present study, I will not go into more detail.
From a linguistic perspective, it is particularly noteworthy that the “stylistic” proposals not only contain important recommendations from the perspective of the clarity of norms (which focuses only on the legislator’s point of view) but their proposals are also consistent with the promotion of intelligibility in a more general sense, from the viewpoint of laypeople.
Reasons behind the success of PLM in Anglo-Saxon countries – conclusions on the situation in Hungary
In the light of international and Hungarian results, the question arises: what factors have contributed to the difference between countries, where the (written?) communication of public officials from a layman’s perspective is regulated by law and Hungary, where PLM results are much more moderate on the level of editing legal texts produced by the state. However, the initiatives taken so far only had an undeniably symbolic importance, given the lack of any concrete legislative commitment to prioritize clear and concise (in other words. plain) communication from the government’s side.
The possible reasons for this can be deduced by evaluating other countries’ practices and patterns, more specifically by identifying the social factors that have created a favorable context for efforts to promote communication in the countries in question.
In my opinion, the factors that lead to success in the context of PLM can be summarized as follows:
- In the case of the United States, the language used by individual agencies to communicate has traditionally been seen as a medium of advocating democracy. In this cultural context, it is therefore expected that all such channels should strive to use language that is appropriate to the needs of the clients who turn to them for help.
- The relative openness of the legal profession to self-reflection in this direction; this is particularly important since no other language is as dominant as that of the legal profession in its dealings with the state and in everyday affairs, and it is understandable that the most basic social expectations are expressed in this respect.
- The study of legal language from a linguistic point of view has a long tradition in the USA, and an interdisciplinary approach is not new in the field, which is why there are already established channels for cooperation between the professionals concerned.
- The need for clarity in the use of legal/official language is an integral part of legal culture (cf. Friedman 1975).
In addition, it is important to highlight another aspect (which can be demonstrated clearly by the Hungarian example), namely;
5. the role of the state in enabling citizens’ understanding by facilitating their access and comprehension of legal procedures and texts.
This kind of engagement has been rooted, since around the 2010s, mainly in the organizational culture, which sets the guidelines for the functioning of the office system and foresees its main directions of development. This is particularly important where governmental agencies are keen on adopting principles from the private sector, like in the US. Informally, organizational culture can also be described as setting out the “way of doing things”. However, it is usually seen as a key driver of performance, providing a framework for decision-making and for judging the effectiveness of the organization. The emergence of such cultures is driven by trends such as the trend towards digitalization in data storage, data-driven approaches and the increasing penetration of artificial intelligence in many disciplines, and globalization in the world economy.
The buzzwords that most characterize the organizational culture that the US government has sought to develop over the past decade often call for the application of some principles already known, or perhaps established, in the competitive sector, such as:
● “open government“, which values transparency (for instance, making government information more accessible, particularly by publishing more online) and cooperation (within the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions as well, details can be seen here),
● a culture of learning: prioritizing relevance and efficiency in order to adapt quickly to changes in the environment
In relation to the latter, customer satisfaction, there are two important value drivers that have been regularly linked to the topic in recent years:
● most importantly, trust in government and government agencies is highlighted as a measure of satisfaction,
● the other is that the use of clear communication is seen as a key factor in avoiding complaints and grievances and in building satisfaction and trust, which means that the linguistic dimension of communication is becoming much more important.
All these conditions therefore create the ideal environment for the principles of the PLM to be put into practice and, more generally, for official (and in particular: legal) texts to be made more accessible.
In this paper, I have briefly summarized the main theoretical background of PLM, the Hungarian implications of the topic, and the main plausible reasons behind the success of PLM in the US and in the Nordic countries.
I have briefly explained that the solution to the problem of legal / official texts’ comprehensibility (from the perspective of the non-professionals) is a highly complex issue which may involve either the development of a legal meta-language or the revision of existing communication materials in case of documents addressed specifically for the lay public. I also concluded, that despite the complexity of comprehensibility efforts, the need to strengthen confidence in the legal system is still a priority today, and the more significant governmental engagement is the key to solve this issue in Hungary.
In the Hungarian context, it is of particular importance to emphasize that for people who do not know legal language, understanding legal texts is one of the basic tools of their advocacy, since if they do not want to become vulnerable to institutions and want to know, use and comply with the opportunities, rights and obligations offered to them by the legal system, understanding legal language(s) is also indispensable. Although a number of programmes have addressed this issue, there is still no legislation in Hungary that would regulate official communication in this respect in a satisfactory way.
However, it should be noted that the issue of comprehensibility cannot considered simply a question of language use. It’s a more complex phenomenon that involves e.g. the words and grammatical structures used in the given text, but also the conceptual complexity which the text expresses. Therefore, any ambition aims to make legal texts more readable to laypeople should take into account all these specificities. Moreover, there are inherent complexities in the legal domain’s texts, which make the PLM’s goals even more hard to achieve.
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 Supported by the ÚNKP-20-3 – New National Excellence Program of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology from the source of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund.
 E.g.: The Swedish Language Act (2009:600), official English translation available: https://www.regeringen.se/contentassets/9e56b0c78cb5447b968a29dd14a68358/spraklag-pa-engelska,
The Finnish Administrative Procedure Act (434/2003), official English translation available:
 Guidelines on Transparency under Regulation 2016/679
 For a detailed overview about the term, see e.g.: https://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/3751/
 OTKA K-112172
 OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Circular A-11, Section 280 – „Managing Customer Experience and Improving Service Delivery”
Supported by the ÚNKP-20-3 – New National Excellence Program of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology from the source of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund.
István Üveges is a 4th year Ph.D. student at University of Szeged, Doctoral School in Linguistics, and a 3rd year Computer Science student also at University of Szeged. He is participating in TK-MILAB, “Elaboration of a domain-specific method for Hungarian sentiment analysis” project at Centre for Social Sciences, Artificial Intelligence National Laboratory. His main interests are legalese (legal language), Plain Language Movement, Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.