Have you ever puzzled over the ‘small print’ on a mobile telephone contract or insurance agreement, trying to ﬁgure out how it relates to you? Have you ever clicked your consent to a Website’s terms and conditions without having even glanced at them? Have you ever scrutinised a roadside parking restrictions sign and wondered where you stand – or park? If so, you have encountered the potentially unsettling eﬀects of legal language. You can probably recall many more examples, as law pervades daily life. Language is integral to this; repeatedly we are told ‘the law is a profession of words’ (Mellinkoﬀ 1963: vii) and ‘our law is a law of words’ (Tiersma 1999: 1). Yet many other aspects of social life also rely on words. What is so special about connections between language and law? Language sets up law, deﬁning oﬀences, obligations and rights and presenting these for legal
specialists and for members of society who decide whether to live by law’s words or face consequences also stated in language. Legal language governs relationships between individuals, companies and institutions. Law is also conducted, enforced, indeed brought into existence through language. In police stations, courts and prisons, for example, law moves oﬀ the page and into people’s lives through the collection and use of evidence in interviews, cross examinations and review panels, and through communication of legal outcomes which shape social relations in areas as wide-ranging as who lives with whom and who faces what punishment. All of this provides stimulating foci for descriptive linguistics particularly at the discourse level. However, such study also illuminates the law and the ways in which society conducts important parts of its operation, concerning life, death, pain, retaliation, retribution, harm and change. With this in mind, language study in the legal system is more than the study of an interesting artefact of itself. Rather, linguists who study legal systems potentially become involved in the working of those systems, moving beyond description by turning their observations into social commentary or even activism or intervention. So, here is one crucial reason why the observation that language is essential to law is more than just a platitude; the study of language in legal systems permits linguists to make positive contributions to the operation of law and thus society. Language is also essential to law because of the frequency with which language becomes
part of legally sanctioned activities. Oﬀences are planned and executed through language, so
audio records of alleged oﬀences can become subject to linguistic analysis, as can written texts potentially produced by perpetrators. In civil and criminal law, acts of misrepresentation, persuasion, and deception can underpin such oﬀences as bribery, defamation, perjury, blackmail, threatening, libel and slander, rendering them amenable to linguistic analysis (e.g. Shuy 2010). Here, linguists with specialisms ranging from phonetics to pragmatics can perform tasks as fundamental as informing decisions about whether an illegal activity has occurred. The term forensic linguistics is hotly debated. For some, it denotes only the work of those
who provide expert evidence on language for police investigations or court hearings. For these terminological purists, the forensic linguist is essentially a consultant for hire. For others, the term has a wider meaning which extends to examining courtrooms, particularly criminal ones, by analysing talk from lawyers and witnesses. Finally, increasingly the term is coming to have a wider application to denote research on all areas of legal activity from the language of legislation through police stations and even into prisons and out into the worlds of consumers, families and corporations. Other labels circulate, such as language and law (Levi 1994), forensic English (Philbrick 1949) and the more specialised forensic discourse analysis (Coulthard 1994) and forensic phonetics (e.g. Foulkes and French 2001), yet forensic linguistics has, particularly outside the USA, become an umbrella term for all forms of language-based research on matters legal. No doubt the exact scope of the area will continue to shift as scholars pursue new foci and new alignments with the forensic linguistic label. Societies’ changing notions of legality and law’s scope will also be an inﬂuence. For now, this chapter is organised around a distinction between expert witness work, in which language becomes evidence, and descriptive research on language within, and reaching out from, legal systems.