The pragmatics of legal language
Nicholas Allott (joint work with Ben Shaer)
This talk summarises ongoing joint work with Ben Shaer (Carleton University, Canada) on the structure and, particularly, pragmatics of legal language. In a series of papers, we have looked at three different types of legal texts from the common law, English language, legal tradition: legal notices; statutes and regulations; and adjudications made by judges.
We make two general claims. The first is that in legal texts, what you see is (largely) what you get. Thus, apparently sub-sentential legal notices are really fragments; and provisions in statutes have only their face-value illocutionary force: they create new social facts and (contra various scholars) are not indirect orders. Our second general claim is that the interpretation of legal texts such as statutes is of a piece with utterance interpretation more generally as it is understood in (post-)Gricean pragmatics. More specifically, interpretation of a legal text is a species of inference to the best explanation, where the production of the text is what is to be explained and the explanation is in general a matter of what it was that the utterer intended to communicate.
As I will show, our rather theoretical conclusions about the three types of text are backed by analysis of real-world examples. I hope that members of the group may be able to advise us on ways of working with the corpora that are available to us, particularly online collections of statutes and judicial adjudications.