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The case for plain English

The independent Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland has told prosecutors that their reliance on legal jargon confuses the public.

Using a report on complaints handling and feedback, the Inspectorate highlighted jargon-filled responses to complaints.

Inspectors demanded that the Crown Office’s Response and Information Unit (RIU) respond using plain English. They also suggested that the RIU avoid using terminology unless they’re prepared to explain it.

One case involved a woman who wanted to know why her elderly husband had been arrested and kept in a cell overnight. The response she received included phrases like ‘appear from custody’, ‘libelled a charge’ and ‘liberated on an undertaking’.

Another case involved a victim unhappy with the criminal’s sentence. The reply to the complaint, which otherwise brushed off the victim’s concerns, was full of ‘overly formal and jargonistic terminology’ such as ‘prosecuted under solemn proceedings’, ‘petition warrant’, and ‘first diet’.

HM Chief Inspector Michelle Macleod said, “Critical to a good complaints-handling system and improving service delivery is a culture that values complaints and commits to learning from them.

“While we found the complaints handling staff in the RIU, a national specialist unit that handles complaints and feedback, were helpful and skilled, there was less evidence of ‘buy in’ from the wider organisation about the need to learn from complaints.”

The Inspectorate’s report made 15 recommendations for improvements. The Crown Office said many of the issues raised had already been addressed.

We can only repeat what we’ve said many times – failing to explain such matters simply is inexcusable. We hope the Inspectorate’s recommendations are all taken on board and that full, clear explanations of sentencing and legal issues are provided in each case.

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