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Posted by Frank Taylor on January 31, 2019

Professor Jesús Prieto de Pedro lamented in the well-known book, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho,[1] that “[the vices of legal language] are … deformations of the communicative relationship between the power and the citizens that the democratic state still has not adequately confronted.”[2] The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of Argentina took an innovative step to reform this communicative relationship with the launch of Wiki Ius to “bring the language of justice closer to the people.”[3]

Plain Language for Argentina

Like other legal languages, the legal language of Spanish “suffers from several ills.”[4] Prieto de Pedro diagnosed the illnesses of legal language as “the sum of small vices against clear expression” that prevent citizens from understanding the laws; one of those vices is “abuse of the technical vocabulary.”[5]

Plain language or lenguaje claro[6] is a remedy for the abuse of the technical vocabulary of law. By the 1970s, an identifiable movement for plain language had emerged from “the belief that citizens should be able to understand their rights and obligations.”[7]

Wiki Ius was launched in 2017 as part of an initiative under Justicia 2020,[8] which is an online platform for citizen participation and dialogue for the improvement of justice.[9] The innovation of Wiki Ius is the presentation of plain-language definitions[10] of legal terminology in the format of a wiki.[11]

The methodology of a wiki was chosen to facilitate collaboration among not only lawyers and judges but also everyday people.[12] The software is MediaWiki,[13] which also powers Wikipedia as well as the websites of countless third-party users.[14]

Wiki Ius has proven its utility to support other initiatives through the inclusion of terminology and definitions.[15] The innovation and early success of Wiki Ius invites us to imagine the adaptation of the wiki format to plain-language vocabularies in other fields[16] or to other purposes within the field of law beyond vocabulary.

Across Spanish-Speaking Legal Systems

Prieto de Pedro also criticized the lack of joint efforts among the governments of Spanish-speaking countries with respect to legal vocabulary[17] and suggested “the possibility of a common legal dictionary.”[18] Both points were addressed with the publication of the Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico in 2017.[19]

One of the motivations for the Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico was the need for “works that contribute to the clarity and accessibility of legal language.”[20] As such a resource, Wiki Ius complements the Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico.

We can imagine an expanded version of Wiki Ius that would include plain-language glossaries from the legal systems of all Spanish-speaking countries. The probability of success for such a project has grown with the emergence of plain-language networks in Chile[21] and Colombia[22] as well as Argentina.[23]

Around Our World

Finally, Prieto de Pedro wrote Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho from the perspective of the multilingual environment of Spain in which translation is essential.[24] The example of the European Union demonstrates the difficulties of reconciling different legal vocabularies in a multilingual, multinational context.[25]

A way to manage such difficulties may result from the effort to develop an international standard for plain language under the leadership of the International Plain Language Federation.[26] A global, multilingual version of Wiki Ius could support such a standard with the capacity of MediaWiki to accommodate many languages[27] and the power of extensions such as Semantic MediaWiki to store and query data.[28]

Wiki Ius is an innovation for justice in Argentina and a precedent for plain language in other Spanish-speaking legal systems and around our world. In addition, Wiki Ius serves as an inspiration for those who, like the author of this blog entry, believe in the potential of MediaWiki as a tool for innovation in law.[29]

NOTES

[1] Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho was originally published in 1991 by Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia; a reprint was issued in 2016 by Editorial Civitas. “Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho,” WorldCat, accessed January 27, 2019, https://www.worldcat.org/title/lenguas-lenguaje-y-derecho/oclc/992049754?referer=br&ht=edition.

[2] Professor Jesús Prieto de Pedro wrote that “[t]he vices of legal language derive not from a supposed insufficiency of the deposit of resources of languages to meet the necessities of legal expression; they are, to the contrary, an endemic evil of contemporary governments, deformations of the communicative relationship between the power and the citizens that the democratic state still has not confronted adequately”:

Los vicios del lenguaje legal no derivan de una supuesta insuficiencia del depósito de recursos de las lenguas ante las necesidades de la expresión jurídica; son, por el contrario, un mal endémico de los estados contemporáneos, deformaciones de la relación comunicativa entre el poder y los ciudadanos que el Estado democrático no ha afrontado aún adecuadamente.

Jesús Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, Cuadernos Civitas (Cizur Menor: Editorial Civitas, 2016), 152-53.

[3] The homepage of Wiki Ius explains that the website “is a glossary of terms from Argentine law in plain language, with simple explanations, that we construct in a participative manner with the community. It is one of the initiatives of the space Justicia 2020 of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of the Nation, to bring the language of justice closer to the people”:

Wiki Ius es un glosario de términos del Derecho argentino en lenguaje claro, con explicaciones fáciles, que construimos de manera participativa con la comunidad. Es una de las iniciativas del espacio Justicia 2020 del Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Nación, para acercar el lenguaje de la justicia a la gente.

“Página principal,” Wiki Ius, April 4, 2018, accessed January 27, 2019, http://wiki.derechofacil.gob.ar/index.php/P%C3%A1gina_principal (link omitted, translation by Frank Taylor).

[4] Professor Heikki Mattila concluded that “legal Spanish — like legal languages in general — suffers from several ills: over-long sentences, impersonal appearance, repetitive and formal manner of expression, over-use of nouns, debatable word formation, use of capital letters and punctuation marks contrary to the recommendations of language specialists.” Heikki E.S. Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics: Language of Law, Latin and Modern Lingua Francas, trans. Goddard, Christopher, 2nd ed. (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 289.

[5] According to Prieto de Pedro, the illnesses of legal language “are not so much the question of a high fever, but occasional, like continuous tenths of a degree. And this sum of small vices against clear expression (abuse of long sentences, of the technical vocabulary, of nominalizations, of passive constructions, punctuation defects, etc.) is what forces a curtain of darkness over the capacity of the citizen to understand what the laws say”:

Sus dolencias no son tanto una cuestión de fiebre alta, pero ocasional, como de décimas permanentes. Y esa suma de pequeños vicios contra el decir claro (abuso de las frases extensas, del léxico técnico, de las nominalizaciones, de las construcciones pasivas, defectos de punctuación, etc…) es la que tupe una cortina de obscuridad contra la capacidad del ciudadano para entender lo que dicen las leyes.

Jesús Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, Cuadernos Civitas (Cizur Menor: Editorial Civitas, Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, 151.

[6] The website of the International Plain Language Federation contains definitions of “plain language,” “lenguaje claro,” and equivalent terms in several other languages:

  • “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
  • “Un comunicado está escrito en lenguaje claro si su redacción, su estructura y su diseño son tan transparentes que los lectores a los que se dirige pueden encontrar lo que necesitan, entender lo que encuentran y usar esa información.”

“Definitions,”International Plain Language Federation, accessed January 27, 2019, http://www.iplfederation.org/definitions-of-plain-language/.

[7] Plain-language advocate Mark Adler wrote that “by the 1970s various initiatives, encouraged by the belief that citizens should be able to understand their rights and obligations, had built up sufficient momentum to be identified as the beginning of the current movement.” Mark Adler, “The Plain Language Movement,” in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, eds. Peter M. Tiersma and Lawrence M. Solan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 69.

[8] “Wiki Ius, el glosario participativo de términos jurídicos en lenguaje claro ya está en línea,” Justicia 2020, May, 26, 2017, accessed January 20, 2019, https://www.justicia2020.gob.ar/noticias/wiki-ius-glosario-participativo-terminos-juridicos-lenguaje-claro/.

[9] The website of Justicia 2020 describes it as “a platform of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights … that functions through citizen participation” and serves “as a space for dialogue in which everyone can make suggestions, share ideas, and know the projects that are underway to improve the service of justice”:

Justicia 2020 es una plataforma digital del Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Nación, República Argentina, que funciona a través de la participación ciudadana. Se trata de un espacio de diálogo en el que todos podemos realizar propuestas, compartir ideas y conocer los proyectos que están en marcha para mejorar el servicio de justicia.

“Justicia 2020,”Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos, accessed January 27, 2019, https://www.justicia2020.gob.ar/ (translation by Frank Taylor).

[10] Prieto de Pedro commented that, “used in a prudent way, definitions can be a useful resource for a relative improvement in the transparency of legal language for ordinary citizens, and even for those who have to apply norms,” although he cautioned that we should “be conscious that clarity is not an intrinsic quality of definitions, but the result of a logical and straightforward way of arranging and expressing the thought defined”:

[U]sadas de forma ponderada, las definiciones pueden ser un recurso útil para una relativa mejora en la transparencia del lenguaje legal ante el común de los ciudadanos, e incluso ante quienes han de aplicar las normas. Pero, en cualquier caso, hay que ser conscientes de que la claridad no es una cualidad intrínseca a la definición, sino el resultado de una forma lógica y llana de ordenar y expresar el pensamiento definido.

Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, 178 (translation by Frank Taylor).

[11] The foreword to the second edition of Working with MediaWiki provides a basic explanation of what a wiki is:

A ‘wiki’ is a website that contains information, which allows users to edit its content easily. Wikis use what is called ‘wikitext’, which allows authors to define chapters, sections, paragraphs, hyperlinks and other elements of their content using a special short-hand. The wiki software then renders the resultant wikitext as a web page. Wikis can be open to the public, such as Wikipedia, or can be set up within companies and organizations and used internally to organize information. You can read them like normal websites and also easily help to improve the quality of the information they contain by editing their content.

Daniel Robbins, “Foreword,” in Yaron Koren, Working with MediaWiki, 2nd ed. (n.p.: WikiWorks Press, 2017), ix, available online at http://workingwithmediawiki.com/book/chapter1.html#toc-Section-1 (accessed December 22, 2018).

[12] The creators of Wiki Ius explain on the homepage, in part, that “we want the citizen to feel that justice is not the exclusive competence of lawyers and judges” and that, to “involve the people in the construction” of the website, “the methodology of a wiki” was used for “a legal glossary with simple explanations”:

Queremos que el ciudadano sienta que la Justicia no es competencia exclusiva de los abogados o los jueces, sino un valor que nos comprende a todos. Pensamos que una forma de hacerla más próxima es involucrando a la gente en su construcción. Por eso, utilizamos la metodología wiki para armar un glosario jurídico con explicaciones fáciles.

“Página principal,” Wiki Ius, April 4, 2018, accessed January 27, 2019, http://wiki.derechofacil.gob.ar/index.php/P%C3%A1gina_principal (paraphrase by Frank Taylor).

[13] MediaWiki was implemented in 2002 and gained the name “MediaWiki” a year later. Koren, Working with MediaWiki, 3.

[14] Developer Yaron Koren described the popularity of MediaWiki:

MediaWiki is an open-source wiki engine originally developed for use on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is still by far the best-known use of it. But MediaWiki is also in use on at least tens of thousands of wikis around the world – it’s almost certainly the world’s most popular wiki software.

Koren, Working with MediaWiki, 1.

[15] The Rendiciones de Cuentas de las Iniciativas Presentadas a la Sociedad Civil for Justicia 2020 includes the example of support for the initiative “Acceso a Difusión de Derechos para Personas Mayores” through the “inclusion … of the terminology and definitions that appear en Article Two of the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons”:

Se trabajó en la inclusión en la wikiius – creada por el SAIJ – de toda la terminología y definiciones que constan en el artículo 2 de la Convención Interamericana sobre la Protección de los Derechos Humanos de las Personas Mayores.

Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos, Cuentas de las Iniciativas Presentadas a la Sociedad Civil, 4.4.2, [117], December 2018, accessed January 27, 2019, https://www.justicia2020.gob.ar/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Rendici%C3%B3n-de-cuentas-2018-Justicia-2020.pdf.

[16] Adler described the diversity of fields that are touched by the movement for plain language:

The plain language movement includes many plainers (practitioners and campaigners) worldwide. Law is only one aspect of the movement; some plainers promote plain medicine; others plain government, plain technical writing, plain finance, and plain scientific papers.

Adler, “The Plain Language Movement,” in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, 70.

[17] Mattila summarized the positions that Prieto de Pedro expressed on pages 141-42 of Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho (Madrid: Editorial Civitas, 1991):

This author deplores that legal language needlessly diverged at the end of the 20th century in the Spanish-speaking countries because projects aiming to jointly develop the legal vocabulary of Spain and of the Latin American countries were nonexistent. According to Prieto de Pedro, cooperation between the Spanish-speaking countries in the legal terminological field was insufficient. That is why these countries have often adopted several terms to express the very same concept. Thus this author stresses the importance of joint terminological work and proposes that the authorities and experts from Spain and South America should organise joint meetings and seminars to exchange views and find consensus on the development of Spanish-language administrative and legal terminology.

Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, 300-301 (footnote omitted).

[18] “[E]s importante la promoción de encuentros con las Administraciones hispanoamericanas a fin de intercambiar puntos de vista y de buscar posibles marcos de consenso sobre cuestiones como el léxico administrativo o los léxicos que afectan de forma especial a la vida administrativa (como el informático). Encuentros que habrían de coordinarse y aportar sus conclusiones al proyecto del gran diccionario de la lengua que, al parecer, piensa redactar la Real Academia de la Lengua Española para 1992; sin descartar la posibilidad de un diccionario jurídico común.” Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, 141-42.

[19] “Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico,” Real Academia Española, accessed January 28, 2019, http://www.rae.es/obras-academicas/diccionarios/diccionario-panhispanico-del-espanol-juridico.

[20] The editor of the Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico, Santiago Muñoz Machado, recounted how the project of a dictionary of legal Spanish, which had been contemplated since 1713, finally became a reality thanks to an initiative of the Consejo General del Poder Judicial of Spain and the desire of the president of the Consejo and the Tribunal Supremo of Spain, who also presided over the Cumbre Judicial Iberoamericana, to stimulate “the development of works that contribute to the clarity and accessibility of legal language, a concern that all of the Supreme Tribunals and Courts that formed part of the Cumbre”:

El proyecto [de la preparación de un diccionario del español jurídico], que pretendía completar la parte no ejecutada del programa académico de 1713, se enriqueció enseguida gracias a la concurrencia de otra iniciativa del Consejo General del Poder Judicial. Deseaba el presidente del Consejo y del Tribunal Supremo, que al tiempo estaba presidiendo la Cumbre Judicial Iberoamericana, impulsar el desarrollo de obras que contribuyeran a la claridad y accesibilidad del lenguaje jurídico, preocupación que compartían todos los Tribunales y Cortes Supremas que forman parte de dicha Cumbre. Fue fácil, por tanto, poner todos estos objetivos en común y articular un convenio que subscribieron el presidente del Consejo y el director del RAE en noviembre de 2014.

Santiago Muñoz Machado, “Presentation,” in Real Academia Española, Cumbre Judicial Iberoamericano, and Consejo General del Poder Judicial, Diccionario panhispánico del español jurídico, ed. Santiago Muñoz Machado (Madrid: Santillana Educación, 2017), xvi

[21] Claudia Poblete, “Lenguaje claro en Chile: De intenciones particulares a un acuerdo y política pública,” Lenguaje Jurídico, June 27, 2017, accessed January 27, 2019, http://www.lenguajejuridico.com/lenguaje-claro-chile/.

[22] “Colombia crea la tercera Red de Lenguaje Claro de Iberoamérica,” Departamento Nacional de Planeación, October 18, 2018, accessed January 27, 2019, https://www.dnp.gov.co/Paginas/Colombia-crea-la-tercera-Red-de-Lenguaje-Claro-de-Iberoam%C3%A9rica.aspx.

[23] “Presentaron la Red Argentina de Lenguaje Claro,” Argentina.gob.ar, November 13, 2018, accessed January 27, 2019, https://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/presentaron-la-red-argentina-de-lenguaje-claro.

[24] Prieto de Pedro pointed out that translation of norms is necessary so that the language of legal texts is more natural and that, in the linguistic pluralism of Spain, laws written in Spanish or other official languages must be translated to the degree possible into the language of the provision in question:

Para que el lenguaje de los textos legales resulte más natural — y en aras también de la afirmación de la identidad de la lengua — se han de traducir al idioma en el que se escribe la norma todas las voces de otras lenguas vivas. Esta regla alcanza también a la pluralidad lingüistica de nuestro Estado: tanto las leyes redactadas en castellano como las redactadas en las otras lenguas españoles oficiales han de traducir a la lengua de la disposición, en la medida en que sea possible, todas las voces y expresiones que tomen de las demás lenguas hispánicas.

Prieto de Pedro, Lenguas, lenguaje y derecho, 160.

[25] After he discounted the possibility of “one official language” for the law of the European Union (EU), Professor Peter Tiersma examined other alternatives:

A more likely approach is to build a corpus of common or uniform legal terminology with precise definitions that can be used in all national languages. At one time Latin fulfilled this function throughout much of Europe, but despite its historical importance, it is probably no longer a serious contender. Creating an entirely new vocabulary, on the analogy of invented languages like Esperanto, might also be a possibility, but it likewise seems improbable. Perhaps a more attractive notion is taking a certain number of legal terms from each EU language in order to create one common legal lexicon. Because of the great structural disparity of the major language families, this may also not be practical.

Peter Tiersma, “A History of the Languages of Law,” in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, 25.

[26] The website of the International Plain Language Federation explains the effort to develop an international standard for plain language:

One of the key activities of the Federation at present is the development of an international plain language standard.

Our focus is to develop an optional multi-language standard for plain language under the auspices of the International Standards’ Organization (ISO). The Standards Project has been on the our agenda since the we were established in 2009.

The development of the Standard is been overseen by a Standards Working Group made up of members of Clarity, PLAIN and the Center for Plain Language. Chaired by Christopher Balmford from Australia.

“Standard: Development,” International Plain Language Federation, accessed January 28, 2019, http://www.iplfederation.org/development/ (links omitted).

[27] Koren noted that “MediaWiki’s support for different written languages is a major point of pride; it appears to be unsurpassed by any other software. MediaWiki has been translated, at least to some extent, into almost 400 languages.” Koren, Working with MediaWiki, 126-27.

[28] According to Koren, “the MediaWiki available to companies and organizations is quite a bit more powerful than the MediaWiki in use on Wikipedia and the like, and that’s due to a number of extensions that Wikipedia and the rest do not use, most notably Cargo and Semantic MediaWiki. With these extensions, you can store the wiki’s text as data, and then query that data elsewhere.” Koren, Working with MediaWiki, xv-xvi.

[29] Frank Taylor, the author of this blog entry, is grateful to Alicia Arena, Carolina Añino, María Constanza Solari, and the collaborative team of Wiki Ius in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights for meeting with him on November 27, 2018, to discuss the history, challenges, and future of the project.


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