When Does a Lawyer Need a Linguist?
Most lawyers deal daily with specialist language which carries very specific meaning. They may be practiced linguists themselves, or rely on the services of legal linguists who help them to understand the precise legal significance of terms and phrases in documents related to their profession. In fact, many lawyers have a university background in language which may also have a focus on the linguistic
What is a legal linguist?
As has been explained, a legal linguist may be a lawyer with linguistic training or a linguist with a legal background. Whatever the background, the legal linguist has acquired the training and expertise to interpret legal terms and phrases in context as well as the ability to communicate the meaning of these terms and phrases where needed. The legal linguist is not necessarily conversant in more than one language, although legal translators may also have a legal linguistic background which would certainly make them invaluable. The legal translator with linguistic abilities would have to have experience in the semantic interpretation of words and phrases in at least two languages – no mean feat!
Legal specialties in which linguistic expertise is valuable
It would be safe to say that a legal linguist is valuable in every branch of law, whether it is civil or criminal law. Some specific examples are explored below.
Plagiarism detection and intellectual property rights
Linguists are able to detect instances of plagiarism which could impact on individual and company intellectual rights and copyright protection. Plagiarism can often be very sophisticated or it might simply be coincidental. Is a string of text or a slogan a deliberate attempt to cash in on someone else’s success? Is there a case for litigation? The lawyer may be able to help with the legal options when a case of copyright violation has been detected or thought to have occurred, but it is the legal linguist who has the training to detect how deliberate is the copying. Litigation often depends on proving deliberate attempts at plagiarism.
Business and employment contract disputes
Lawyers are often required to resolve contract disputes. This depends on an interpretation of the clauses within the contracts and what they mean in terms of the rights and responsibilities of the different parties who are signatories to the contract. Interpretation of the language in the contract is reliant on the expertise of a legal linguist.
Criminal law and prosecutions
Legal linguists may be required to help determine the meaning of what an accused person or a witness has said or written in certain criminal cases. The linguist may be called to help by either the prosecution or by the defendant’s lawyer(s). The context of this interpretation is hugely varied. For example, a witness may have revealed what they overheard in conversation, but whether this can be used as reliable evidence may depend on an interpretation of the exact wording used. The defence may be relying on the fact that their client has been misunderstood but an interpretation of the evidence that the defendant has given may be dependent on a rigorous examination by a linguist.
Probate and interpretation of wills and testaments
When wills are contested during the probate period after someone has died, the interpretation of the wishes of the deceased may not always be crystal clear, especially if the will had been made without legal help in the first place. This is yet another role for the legal linguist who is called in to help elucidate what the intentions of the will may have truly been.
Legal work is dependent on an interpretation of language. Not all lawyers have the capacity to interpret the intricacies of every piece of text they have to deal with although many lawyers do have a grounding in language. It is the role of the legal linguist to provide expertise in the interpretation of words and phrases that have a legal importance.