No. 5




Legal Semantics or Legal Language in the Context of Estonia’s Judicial System

14 June 2002


RiTo No. 5, 2002

  • Raul Narits

    University of Tartu, Professor of Comparative Law

Several years of experience working with linguists in the vocational master’s degree program for Tartu University linguists inspired me to write in RiTo on the relationship between language and law, with the emphasis on language.

The positions presented in the article should not be taken as a call for change, at best they aspire to a lawyer’s ideas on the role of language in understanding law. It should be made clear: literacy is not, nor has it been, sufficient for understanding the nature of law. You don’t go to court to seek laws, but justice.

The problems of language vis-à-vis the law cannot be sorted out just by the efforts of linguists or jurists. Constructive cooperation is also necessary. If the linguist looks at paragraph 113 of the criminal code, which states, “the killing of another person will be punished,” and asks, why the killing of another person and not the death of the victim at hand, then it is perhaps time for lawyers to think about wording. Language still has staying power and there is an ambiguity in the above sentence. The linguist who provides this example offers a solution: “Laws are so complex in their wording that non-lawyers do not dare to start examining them.”

This solution is still a partial one. Everyone who has drafted a law should remember the requirement posited by professor Jüri Uluots in the first half of last century: the body of laws should be comprehensible to every average citizen. So law should not be placed higher than language, nor should we see language as just the crankshaft of the engine of law. Law itself must be in the service of language – and foremost in the form of laws created to preserve language.

Full article in Estonian