How many times have you read a law or code issued by the government and wondered “what language is this in”?
We attempt to read the laws and statutes in an effort to find clarity on certain situations, yet we end up more confused than ever. It would seem that all laws and contracts are written in long, complicated, run-on sentences that make no sense to the average person. This is because the average person doesn’t know that most contracts and all laws are written in a language called legalese.
Legalese sounds and looks like English, but isn’t your regular, average Joe, blue collar English. You may see English words, but what you don’t know (and no one tells you before you sign the contract) is that many of the words actually have different definitions than what you’ll find in a regular dictionary. These words have “legal” definitions that can only be found in special dictionaries.
So, it should come as no surprise to us, average Joes, that we are constantly being outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the attorneys and judges who are experts in this particular language.
For example: when we say we “understand” something, what we mean to say is that we comprehend, or mentally grasp that idea or concept. However, when you’re in court, and the judge says “if you don’t have an attorney, I will put you in jail, do you understand?”, what he’s really saying is “do you stand under?” In other words, the judge is asking you if you agree to his offer, and if you say “yes” then you have entered into that contract with him.
It is incredible how many words have a different meaning when used in legalese documents and scenarios (such as in a courtroom). So, what can we do about it? Well, most people go out and buy a BLACK’S LAW dictionary as the first step on their journey to contract-law enlightenment. This is great. However, what most people do is they go to the store and they buy the most recent edition they can find. We always want to get the latest and greatest, right? Wrong. A little known detail about BLACK’S LAW and other legal dictionaries is that the newer they are, the more watered-down the information is, because they don’t want the people to have access to the real information.
This is yet another trick. We think we are getting access to the right information, but really, it is in a way more dis-information. So what is the best way to figure out the definitions of words so that we know for a fact we are using all the correct words in our legal documents and when we are in front of the judge?
The answer is….. you have to do your due diligence. Our order of operations for figuring out the correct definitions that the judges use for each word is as follows:
First, look for the definition in the actual law/statute/code/contract. Sometimes words such as “creditor”, “taxpayer” etc… are defined within the document. This will give you the most accurate definition of that word in relation to the particular law or contract in question.
Second, if the word is not specifically defined in the law/statute/code/contract in question, then you must look for court cases where the definition has been established by the judge. When there is room for misinterpretation of words or phrases, the court will decide the definition and then make a decision based on that definition of that word or phrase. This is what the Supreme Court does when it interprets the Constitution or any other laws that are in place.
Lastly, if the above options are not available, then the next best thing is to look the word or phrase up in a legal dictionary. As stated before, most people reach for their BLACK’S LAW; however, one of the absolute best dictionaries to use is the BOUVIER LAW DICTIONARY, 1856 edition. This is the dictionary that judges use and are experts in. So, whenever possible, use the BOUVIER. If the BOUVIER is not available to you, the next best option is to the oldest law dictionary you can find. The older they are, the more concentrated, and truthful the information in them.
Doing these things will give you that much more of an advantage when you go toe to toe with a judge or any attorney.
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