In defence of ‘avizandum’: the most magical sounding legal phrase of them all

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By Alex Aldridge on

Solicitors hit back after Scots law phrase is branded “Harry Potter” language


Is the use of Latin legal terminology so obscure that it sounds like a magic spell to be discouraged?

Moray Council thinks so, telling its in-house lawyers to stop using “Harry Potter” language after it emerged that the ancient Latin Scots legal phrase “avizandum” had made it onto a satisfaction questionnaire given to local residents.

“Avizandum”, as you will of course know, is from the Latin word “avizare”, which means “to consider”. For example, a judge “makes avizandum with a cause” — i.e. he has a little think about things. In English law the expression “curia advisari vult” is used, although it’s much less popular than the catchy “avizandum”.

The use of such phrases is arguably a way for lawyers to self-aggrandise, underlining to punters the magic-like capacity of legal words to, as journalist and lawyer David Allen Green puts it on his blog Jack of Kent:

“…have the ‘real world’ effect of being a prelude to, and justification for, the use of coercive power by one person on another”.

When you’re in the customer service business, peppering your language with this sort of implied threat probably isn’t a great idea — a point which Moray Council’s head of legal services, Rhona Gunn, seemed to getting at when she told The Scotsman yesterday:

“Plain English can be a challenge for lawyers, many of whom were trained to use Latin terminology. Words that lawyers are familiar with, like avizandum, sound more like something from a Harry Potter film to most people.

“Staff in legal services are alert to these tendencies and will make every effort to think about the language used from the perspective of our customers.”

But Sylvia MacLennan, a solicitor in the Wick office of top Scottish firm Inksters, reckons that the clampdown on obscure legal language shouldn’t go too far, telling Legal Cheek:

“Of course the point about plain English is that technical jargon is used for a shortcut between experts on that subject. All the Latin terms have extremely precise meanings, established by years of legal authority and thus would mean something different if expressed in different terms, or are much shorter than the plain English equivalent. The skill for lawyers is to use these compressed forms of communication between themselves, but to unpack this into plain English, easy to understand language for their clients.”

Warming to her theme, the witty MacLennan continues with examples from the worlds of quantum physics and car mechanics:

“I am sure that quantum physicists would be pleased if they couldn’t refer to ‘String Theory’ or similar, or that mechanics would be delighted not to be able to use technical terms (for that is what legalese Latin is). I can see a few people blowing ‘a mechanical seal which fills the space between two or more mating surfaces, generally to prevent leakage from or into the joined objects while under compression’ (aka a gasket), over that one; but lets not get bogged down in technical terms huh?

“The point is, like most things, technical Latin terms have their place and their uses. Use them out of place and it becomes a problem. That’s the real issue here, not the existence of the ‘technical terms’ themselves.”

Have you got that, Moray Council?