International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, Vol 22, No 1 (2015)


doi : 10.1558/ijsll.v22i1.17224

An empirical study of lay comprehension of Chinese legal reference texts in Hong Kong

Matthew W. L. Yeung and Janny H. C. Leung


This socio-legal study empirically assesses the use of plain language in improving comprehension of legal reference texts by laypeople in Hong Kong, where common-law Chinese was newly engineered. Our study shows that native Chinese speakers have problems understanding the materials, but simple modifications of the texts can significantly improve their comprehension. The results suggest that the seeming incapability of expressing law in a language may not be related to the choice of code, but to how it is written. Based on the data, this study contributes to the improvement of legal communication by identifying features of common-law Chinese that make these materials difficult to understand, and proposes language-specific plain-language strategies that can improve comprehensibility.


plain language, common-law chinese, textual analysis, legal communication, comprehension

1. Introduction

For both historical and pragmatic reasons, English is widely adopted as the dominant language of the law in most common-law jurisdictions. Historically, the common-law system was spread to other places, mostly via British colonisation, where English was or is used as a means of governance (Schneider 2007); pragmatically, English serves as a bridging resource to connect one common-law jurisdiction to another. Yet, the use of English as a legal language is not without its problems when it comes to postcolonial regions or countries where English is often not the language of the general population and there is a need to elevate the status of the local tongue for political and cultural reasons (Leung in press). This, along with other factors such as globalisation and a heightened awareness of language rights, gives rise to the situation of legal bilingualism, where two languages co-exist in a legal system. The newly adopted legal language is often attacked as a deficient language of the law, partly due to the persistent claim that mythologises English as the only language capable of expressing common-law concepts (see Chen 1985; Ng 2009). This presents a hurdle to be jumped for postcolonial common-law jurisdictions that attempt to be bilingual. This article aims to examine such a hurdle by looking into the case of Hong Kong, where Chinese has been implemented as a legal language for less than two decades. Specifically, using Chinese legal reference texts, the official introductory guide to civil litigation for unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong as a case study, the article shows how the expressiveness of the new legal language may be complicated by certain linguistic barriers, and whether such barriers may be partially removed by textual changes. We argue that the incomprehensibility of the law may be attributed to the way legal language is written, but not to the capability of language itself, and plain language is a potential solution to improve legal texts’ readability, especially when language-specific adaptations are developed.

In analysing communication between laypeople and the law, this article takes a bottom-up approach, which is a methodology largely advocated by the new legal realism (NLR). New legal realism as a descendent of legal realism is a continuous form of reaction to legal formalism – it starts with ‘skepticism about the impact of formal law’ (Garth 2006: 941). Whereas the official law often portrays itself as a coherent system of ruling that systematically yields results solely based on legal rules (formalism), legal realists challenge this notion by saying that non-legal factors such as gender, race and the psychological dispositions of judges may also affect legal outcomes (Leiter 2005; Wacks 2005). Law should therefore be seen ‘as it is’ in the ‘actual operation … in its social context’ (Wacks 2005: 173). New legal realists further suggest that a pragmatic way to assess such an operation would be to start at ‘ground level’ (Erlanger, Garth, Larson, Mertz, Nourse and Wilkins 2005: 339) by focusing on the practice of law in laypeople’s everyday life (Merry 2006). A bottom-up approach like this has two merits: firstly, it gives a more ‘expansive and open-minded view of the impact of the law … [by taking into account] a wide range of socioeconomic classes and interests’; secondly, it goes beyond the boundaries of formal law (Erlanger et al. 2005: 339). Yet, a bottom-up analysis also requires an understanding of the perspectives from the top of the legal hierarchy, e.g. lawyers and judges, which is why a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches is often encouraged in the study of NLR to include various perspectives on formal law (Garth 2006). The significance of NLR is indeed multifold, but of particular relevance to this article is its emphasis on a) the importance of empirical work on laypeople’s experience of the law, and b) the potential gap between the official portrayal of the law and reality. This emphasis inspires the current study to empirically assess how well laypeople cope with the law in the new legal language and to document their experience.

In a postcolonial jurisdiction like Hong Kong’s, the new legal language adopted from the local tongue may potentially extend access to justice because laypeople can opt to communicate with the law in a familiar language. This may be one of the reasons why there has been a noticeable increase in the number of unrepresented litigants since Hong Kong became legally bilingual with the change of sovereignty. In 2009, cases involving at least one party of unrepresented litigants made up 35% of civil trials in the High Court and 55% of civil trials in the District Court (Judiciary Administration 2010). Yet, being familiar with the medium of a trial does not make one a competent litigant. Another necessary quality is knowledge of procedural and substantive law, which is generally lacking among unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong (Chief Justice’s Working Party on Civil Justice Reform 2002).

Unsurprisingly, being unfamiliar with the common-law system leaves unrepresented litigants unable to navigate the system on their own, and help is needed from various parties in court. Lawyers, for example, need to explain legal terms and translate legal documents for unrepresented litigants, which they consider as a waste of their time (Kelly and Cameron 2003). At times, lawyers even have to present arguments for the unrepresented party so that a fair trial can take place (Kelly, Cameron and Chiu 2006). Similarly, judges also see the need to identify and clarify issues that are relevant to the case but are overlooked by unrepresented litigants (Cameron, Kelly and Chiu 2006). Such intervention is necessary to ensure a fair trial (see Judiciary Hong Kong Special Administrative Region 2004). Yet, frequent intervention might deflect judges from their neutral role, leading to concern about judicial impartiality (Cameron and Kelly 2002). Indeed, in the traditional adversarial system which is grounded in sporting theory, judges are supposed to be an umpire of the game, which means they should predominantly play a passive rather than a proactive role in proceedings (Wilkinson 2000). The burden of collecting and presenting evidence, and pushing forward the legal points should rest exclusively on the two parties (Wilkinson 2000). Self-representation potentially shifts such a burden to the represented party. Unrepresented litigants become problematic when they are unaware of or unable to fulfil the duties that are long assumed of them in the traditional adversarial system. Their defiance in the face of the traditional model accordingly poses challenges to the roles of judges and lawyers.

Nevertheless, the judiciary in Hong Kong has responded to the issue of unrepresented litigants positively. Judges are reminded that ‘special allowances’ may have to be made for these laypeople due to their lack of access to legal advice, and hence the lack of awareness of rules of law and procedure (The Working Party of Final Report on Civil Justice Reform 2004: 70). In one case, a judge even organised a dry run for an unrepresented litigant just to show him how examination and cross-examination should be done properly (Cameron et al. 2006). A demonstration may be useful, but some of the basic procedural knowledge ought to be learnt outside the courtroom, and individual help is incompatible with the growing and significant demand for judicial time and resources (Judicial Administration 2003). The Hong Kong Government thus set up the Resource Centre for Unrepresented Litigants[1] in 2003 to provide unrepresented litigants with assistance on civil proceedings, with the aim of alleviating legal costs and facilitating courtroom processes (The Working Party of Final Report on Civil Justice Reform 2004). However, no substantial research on the Resource Centre has been done to establish its usefulness, especially in relation to the legal texts provided. There is a need to investigate to what extent laypeople comprehend such legal texts.

2. Comprehensibility of legal texts in a bilingual jurisdiction

Understanding legal texts has been found to be a persistent challenge to laypeople, as shown in forensic linguistic studies on jury instructions (Charrow and Charrow 1979; Steele and Thornburg 1988; Kramer and Koenig 1990) and Miranda rights warnings in the US (Kahn, Zapf and Cooper 2006; Rogers, Harrison, Shuman, Sewell and Hazelwood 2007; Rogers, Hazelwood, Sewell, Shuman and Blackwood 2008). A reason why legal texts are incomprehensible may at times have to do with the production process. In Hong Kong, the creation of Chinese legal texts largely comes from the translation of the English legislation enacted before 1989 which amounted to 532 ordinances. During the translation, there were two major difficulties that confronted the project: terminological and conceptual incongruity (Sin and Roebuck 1996). Terminological incongruity, known as ‘linguistic differences’, refers to the absence of equivalent terms between the source and target language (Cao 2007: 28–29). Given that Chinese has been essentially functioning predominantly as a language of social life in Hong Kong, it is not hard to understand why the Chinese language pool does not readily correspond to English legal terms (Poon 2002). Conceptual incongruity, also called ‘cultural differences’ comes from the cultural gaps across languages (Cao 2007: 32). As one of the greatest challenges to legal translators, conceptual incongruity makes the search for an adequate equivalent futile at times (Šarčević 1997). It seems only inevitable that exact equivalents may not be found in Chinese during the translation of English common law. Under these circumstances, neologisms (i.e. coining a new term) would be adopted to expand the lexicon in the target language. Yet, since neologisms may result in unusual collocations, readers may be unfamiliar with them or even unable to interpret them at times. On this point, the Law Drafting Division (1996) specifically reminds the public of the potential flaw in neologisms – that the combined meaning of the characters in a coined Chinese word may not always represent the intended meaning. If laypeople are not adequately informed of this danger, misinterpretation of certain key phrases may result, and this could be detrimental to a case outcome. The question that remains is whether the texts resulting from the intricate translation process that took place before the handover are accessible to the general public at all.

Given the complexity of common law, transplanting it from English to Chinese does not only involve technical difficulties, but it has also generated a debate on whether any language, other than English, is capable of handling common law (see Chen 1985; Ng 2009). There have been doubts on the very function of common law in the Chinese language, as it is only a translated product. Barrister Derry Wong (1999) puts forward this argument by saying that the Chinese equivalents in common law do not possess any meaning but are merely symbols that should be construed in accordance with common law in English. Chinese texts can only acquire and verify the common-law meaning through English texts at an early stage of legal bilingualism (Roebuck and Sin 1993). This may be especially true for certain judicially defined terms whose meanings reside in English precedents. Yet, it is only a matter of time before Chinese texts fully acquire such meanings: with more precedents being built up in Chinese, Chinese texts would eventually be functional in their own right in common law.

Since there were few Chinese judgments at the early stages of legal bilingualism and existing judgements were mostly translated from English, a similar concern has been raised over the actual value of Chinese judgments in common law (Wong 1999). In fact, since case judgments are mostly written in English, most lawyers would agree that interpreting legal expressions in English would be easier (Tang 1998). Pragmatic value is one of the factors that makes common law ‘better’ in English (Tang 1998: 21). Even today, English seems to be more valued than Chinese in higher courts, as shown in case distribution. English continues to be the dominant language in higher courts where cases are complicated by legal argument and are of high precedential value, whilst Cantonese is often only used in lower courts such as Magistrates’ Courts, which involve mostly factual disputes instead of disagreement about the application of law. This is what Ng (2011: 126) describes as ‘English above, Cantonese below’, the metaphorical expression of which reveals the values of the two languages in the language hierarchy. One may argue that it may only be habitual for the respective courts to use a particular language. Such a linguistic division of labour nevertheless demonstrates a form of linguistic determinism: complicated legal arguments may continue to be represented in English rather than in Chinese. Some interviewed lawyers from Ng’s (2009: 6) study also agree with this, adding that the English courtroom is simply more ‘solemn, respectful, civilized’ compared with the Cantonese one which is ‘noisy, mundane, and belittling’. The different degrees of formality and linguistic practice in higher and lower courts feed into the myth that Chinese may be an inferior and less capable legal language of common law than English.

Despite the technical and theoretical debates outlined above, legal bilingualism has been practised in Hong Kong for over 15 years. It is important to look at how common law operates in Chinese in reality. Readability of the Chinese texts seems to be an area of concern for users of the legal system. Taking a look at the Chinese version of the Rules of High Court, one can easily find Chinese written in the English structure with verbosity and obscurity as a result. This is also noted by the Draftsman of the Department of Justice in Hong Kong, Tony Yen (1999: 38), who deems such ‘unnatural’ construction of Chinese sometimes necessary for legal concepts to be fully covered. Therefore, there is a tension between accuracy and readability of the Chinese texts. One strategy Madam Justice Kwan adopts to resolve this is to consult both the Chinese and English versions of the text and she remarks that,

It can be said that the Chinese version of the Laws of Hong Kong is quite unreadable … each time I look up the Chinese version of a legislation, I would invariably read its English version as well to help me understand the meaning of the Chinese version and to reduce the chance of making mistakes. One can imagine the difficulty faced by those who can only read the Chinese version of the Laws of Hong Kong. (Kwan 2011: 2)

Even an erudite judge expresses her difficulty in understanding Chinese legal texts in Hong Kong. It is questionable how the general public who are mostly laypeople in relation to law would be able to make sense of the Chinese texts. This justifies why the texts ought to be simplified.

2.1 Applying plain-language techniques to legal texts

Research on jury instruction and legal contracts may offer an insight into how simplification of legal texts should be done. It has been found that simplifying the drafting style of a text can often enhance comprehension to various extents (Charrow and Charrow 1979; Severance and Loftus 1982; Steel and Thornburg 1988; Masson and Waldron 1994; Dumas 1999). For example, by eliminating nominalisation and replacing difficult lexical items with ordinary words, mock litigants’ understanding of jury instruction increased by 45% and 47% respectively in a study by Charrow and Charrow (1979). Removing other obscure features of legal language, such as negatives, embeddings, passives and strings of synonyms could also improve comprehension (Gibbons 2002; see Rock 2007; Tiersma 1999). These simplification techniques are in line with the doctrine of plain language to keep the language simple and clear for readers. Indeed it is the readers’ needs that are the priority of plain language in the production of a text (see Asprey 2003).

Critics of plain language, however, argue that increased litigation might arise from the use of plain language because such language may not be able to handle the complexity and vagueness of the law (see Hunt 2002). Martineau (1991) goes so far as to argue that the complex nature of the law may necessarily require the language to be complex so as to be expressed clearly. For example, technical legal terms like ‘estoppel’ in contract law are often said to be more accurate in expressing legal concepts, because these terms have been defined precisely through years of precedents. Take the legal term ‘Wednesbury unreasonableness’ as another example. Its meaning derives from the case Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation [1947], which concerns a dispute about whether it was legal for Wednesbury Corporation, when granting the license to Associated Provincial Picture Houses, to impose a condition on how they should run a cinema on Sundays – the condition being that no children under 15 years old shall be admitted. The case concludes that a court may only quash a governmental decision if it is ‘Wednesbury unreasonable’, that is, if a decision is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would have made it. If the term ‘Wednesbury unreasonableness’ is to be simplified by being reduced to ‘unreasonableness’, laypeople may be able to interpret it by its ordinary meaning, but the embedded technical meaning in law will be distorted or even lost (also see Crump 2002; Poon 2006). Thus, the notion of plain language may be overly simplistic (see Solomon 1996; Rock 2007 for a sociolinguistic discussion of this) so that what plain language can offer to legal language may be limited.

However, it should be noted that judicially defined terms only make up a small part of legal documents. Research by Hathaway, Omichinski and Pratt (1985, cited in Kimble 1994–1995) found that their presence was less than 3% of an entire legal contract. This means that there is plenty of room for simplification, especially when it comes to sentence structure. In line with plain-language campaigns, we argue that plain language should be defined as a language that simplifies obscure sentence structure and non-technical terms in a legal document. Such a definition would allow plain language to maximise the readability of legal texts while preserving the required technicality and precision of legal meaning in the language.

As Kimble (1998–2000: 116) reckons, plain language does not mean sacrificing precision for simplicity because plain language itself ‘can be at least as precise – or as appropriately vague – as traditional legal writing’. In fact, not only can plain language be accurate, it can also increase comprehension (Kimble 1994–1995; Mindlin 2005–2006) and is welcomed by clients (Butt 2002; Schiess 2002–2003), whereas traditional legal language has long been criticised for serving no legal purpose, promoting inefficiency, and intimidating clients by restricting communication to legal personnel only (Butt 2005). Indeed, clear formulation of legislation and effective communication between the judiciary and public can maintain people’s faith in the legal system. It may even enhance their perception of the rule of law (Ehrenberg-Sundin 2008). This is perhaps why more and more countries have introduced plain language into their law. For example, Australia, Britain and New Zealand have drafted their taxation law with plain language (Butt 2002). Nine US states have legislated to require certain consumer loan contracts to be written plainly (Asprey 2003). Some states in the US, such as Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania, even set out a specific guideline as to what counts as plain language in their Plain Language Statutes, e.g. limiting sentences to 65 characters (Walsh 2010). Formulation of plain language varies from country to country, or even across states. A jurisdiction intending to adopt plain language may thus need to search for a set of guidelines that will suit its legal language and its readers as a whole.

In Hong Kong, the judiciary also reckons that plainer English should be introduced into the law for the benefits of ordinary citizens (Yen 1999). However, the techniques identified for plain language in the above literature are largely targeted at the English language, and few, if any, have asked whether language-specific adaptions may be required in plain language for another language system, e.g. Chinese. It has thus become the focal point of our study to examine legal materials in Chinese, and we have chosen the official reference texts offered at the Resource Centre for Unrepresented Litigants as the study materials. These texts, entitled ‘Guide to General Civil Proceedings in the High Court and the District Court’, comprise 12 bilingual leaflets which aim to prepare unrepresented litigants for civil proceedings. As a first point of contact between unrepresented litigants and the law, these leaflets are likely to be the source on which they rely for their own litigation. Therefore, these texts’ comprehensibility would exert a great influence on their courtroom performance. We have empirically assessed the readability of the Chinese version of the reference texts by looking at the extent to which mock litigants in Hong Kong understand these texts, what might stand in the way of their comprehension, and how much their understanding can be enhanced by plain language.

3. Experiment

3.1 Participants

Forty-one native Cantonese speakers were recruited from the University of Hong Kong through posters and emails to participate in a legal study experiment for HK$60 (approx. US$7.50). They were either undergraduate or postgraduate students from a non-legal discipline. Twenty-one of them took the test with the original version of the reading material (henceforth referred to as the original group) while 20 took the modified version (modified group). The mean age of the participants in the original and modified group was 21.5 (SD 1.94) and 21.1 years (SD 2.23) respectively. The participants’ average number of years of education in the Chinese language was 17.8 (SD 4.06) for the original group and 18.8 years (SD 1.96) for the modified group.

3.2 Materials

Two sets of materials were involved in the experiment – a reading sample and a question paper. There were two versions of the reading sample, namely the original (see Appendix A1) and modified version (see Appendix A2). The original version was extracted entirely from pp. 4–7 of leaflet 3 ‘What are the stages in a civil action?’ The excerpt outlined the procedural and preparatory work required in the pleading stage. In its original form, the language contains legal jargon, abbreviations, odd collocations, uncommon words and convoluted sentences, which are all potential sources of difficulty for comprehension (see Yeung and Leung 2015). We produced a modified version by eliminating certain linguistic barriers, in ways explained below.

In the examples below the Cantonese Romanisation Scheme (Jyutping system) is adopted to illustrate the examples in Chinese. This scheme is promoted by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong because its representation of sounds is readily accessible to Cantonese speakers. As for non-Cantonese speakers, English translation is also provided. In the interests of space, only key phrases from the examples were illustrated with Romanised Cantonese spelling for discussion.

1. Each legal document’s name was put in Chinese brackets (i.e. ) for distinction, such as 「答覆書」[daap fau6 syu1] (‘reply’), 「反申索抗辯書」[faan1 san1 saak3 kong3 bin6 syu1] (‘defence to counterclaim’), and 「屬實申述」 [suk6 sat6 san1 seot6] (‘statement of truth’).

Original reading material:


The reply and defence to counterclaim has to be verified by a statement of truth

Simplified reading material:


The ‘reply’ and ‘defence to counterclaim’ has to be verified by ‘a statement of truth’

2. Lexical or structural ambiguity was removed. For example, 作出承認 [zok3 ceot1 sing4 jan6] (‘make admission’) is ambiguous as it can denote an acknowledgment of receiving a claim or an admission (in the sense of conceding) of liability in a claim (Cameron and Kelly 2009). The phrase was therefore spelt out in plain terms 同意申索並付款 [tung4 ji3 san1 saak3 bing3 fu6 fun2 ] (‘agree that the claim is valid and agree to pay the plaintiff money’).

Original reading material:

如果原告人的申索只要求支付款項,他應同時向被告人送達法定表格(表格16 或表格16C),以便被告人按照《高等法院規則》或《區域法院規則》(視所屬情況而定)第13A 號命令作出承認

If the plaintiff’s claim is only for payment of money, he should also serve the defendant with a statutory form (Form No. 16 or Form No. 16C) for the defendant to make admission under Order 13A of the Rules of the High Court (or the Rules of the District Court as the case may be).

Simplified reading material:


If the plaintiff’s claim is only for payment of money, he should serve on the defendant ‘the writ of summons’ together with ‘Form No. 16 or Form No. 16C’ for the defendant to agree that the claim is valid and agree to pay the plaintiff money.

3. Abbreviations were given their full forms, e.g. 傳訊令狀 [cyun4 seon3 lim1 zong6] (‘writ of summons’) instead of 令狀 [lim1 zong6] (‘writ’).

Original reading material:


The plaintiff has to serve the writ and statement of claim on all the defendants.

Simplified reading material:


The plaintiff serves ‘a writ of summons’ and ‘a statement of claim’ on all the defendants.

4. Implied and hidden objects to the verb due to ellipsis were re-stated, e.g. 送交法庭存檔 [sung3 gaau1 faat3 ting4 cyun4 dong2] (‘file with the court’) instead of 送交存檔 [sung3 gaau1 cyun4 dong2] (‘file’) alone.

Original reading material:


The plaintiff may file a reply (if necessary).

Simplified reading material:

原告人可以把「答覆書」(如適用的話) 送交法庭存檔

The plaintiff may file a ‘reply’ (if applicable) … with the court.

5. Mistranslation of legal terms was addressed. In the Chinese version of the original material, an acknowledgment of service is said to be 送交 [sung3 gaau1] (‘filed’) to the plaintiff by the court, in which the verb file has the legal meaning of registering the sending of documents in the court’s official record. Such a legal sense is absent in the verb sent, which is used in the English version to describe the delivery of the document. Assuming that the English version was the original, the Chinese version erred in using a legal verb (‘file’) for a non-legal action (‘send’). The legal verb 送交 [sung3 gaau1] (‘file’) was therefore replaced by the ordinary verb 送給 [sung3 kap1] (‘send’) to avoid confusion between the technical and ordinary meaning of the 送交 [sung3 gaau1] (‘file’).

Original reading material:

法院會把該送達認收書的一份文本送交 (file) 原告人

The Court will file a copy of it (an acknowledgment of service) to the plaintiff.

Simplified reading material:

法院會把該「送達認收書」的一份文本送給 (send) 原告人

The Court will send a copy of ‘an acknowledgment of service’ to the plaintiff.

6. The temporal sequence of procedures is visualised in a flow chart (see Appendix A2).

7. Sentence embedding was eliminated by separating the phrases with punctuation (see Section 5.3 for examples).

As exemplified, the observable differences between the two versions of the reading material lie in the language style (e.g. sentence structure and word choice) and format, rather than in the substance.

3.3 Procedure

Participants were required to study the reading sample first and then answer the questions in the question paper. As each question makes reference to a certain part of the reading sample through an extracted sentence, they were instructed to carefully answer the question by referring to the wider context in the reading sample. They were asked to finish the experiment within an hour, and most of them finished in around 45–50 minutes.

4. Results

All the recorded answers were evaluated with reference to a marking scheme (see example in Appendix B). There were a total of 11 items on the question paper, and each correct answer was awarded one mark. The answers were marked blind by an assessor who did not know which version of the material the respondents had read. The scores are reported in Table 1.

Table 1: Percentage of correct answers in each subject group

Average scores (%)

Item type (question number)

Original group

Modified group


Stating the deadline of serving the document (Q1)




Stating the place where the document is served (Q1)




Explaining the meaning of ‘entering judgment’ (Q1)




Stating the main verb of the sentence (Q3)




Explaining the meaning of the sentence (Q3)




Explaining the meaning of ‘admission’ (Q4)




Stating the consequence of ‘admission’ by the defendant (Q4)




Stating how the case will be handled upon admission (Q4)




Calculating the deadline of the concerned process (Q5)




Stating the object to which ‘serving’ is directed (Q6)




Stating the object to which ‘filing’ is directed (Q6)



The results of question 2 were eliminated from the analysis on the grounds that an unequal amount of information was found between the two versions of the reading sample.

The average scores were found to be higher in the modified group (mean (M) = 8.7, standard deviation (SD)[2] = 1.34, standard error of the mean (SEM)[3] = 0.3) than the original group (M = 5.24, SD = 1.61, SEM = 0.35), by a difference of 31%. A two-tailed test was used to examine the probability of observing such a difference if participants reading the two different sets of reading materials performed no differently (see Wasserman 2004). The null hypothesis is rejected if the p-value (p) in the test is less than 0.01.[4] In this experiment the performance difference between both groups was found to be statistically significant, t(39) = 7.4612, p < 0.001 (two-tailed). This suggests that the adopted simplifications as a whole could increase comprehension.

The modified group scored higher in more items than the original group, except in item 2. For item 2, although the original group scored higher numerically, the difference in the performance between the two groups was statistically insignificant (5%). Among the rest of the items, the largest differences in average score are found in items 4 (37%), 8 (65%), 10 (52%) and 11 (81%). Each of these items involved a different simplifying technique. Item 4 concerned the use of brackets on document names, item 8, the use of a flow chart in expressing outcomes, items 10 and 11, the restating of hidden objects. These results will be discussed in detail later.

A comparatively smaller numerical difference in average score was observed between the original and modified groups in items 1 (10%), 3 (24%), 6 (19%) and 7 (28%). In item 1, details about procedural information buried in paragraphs were instead expressed in a flow chart, whereas in items 3, 6 and 7 the meaning of the rather ambiguous phrases was spelt out explicitly.

Similarly, the modified group performed slightly better than the original group in items 5 and 9. However, the average score obtained by both groups was less than 30%, indicating low comprehension, the reasons for which will be explored.

4.1 Correlation

In each of the questions, the participants had to rate their understanding of the sentence on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means a total lack of understanding while 10 means full understanding. The modified group (M = 33.80, SD = 7.69, SEM = 1.72) had a numerically higher level of confidence than the original group (M = 29.95, SD = 7.34, SEM = 1.60), but the difference was not statistically significant, t(39) = 1.6396, p > 0.05.

There was no significant linear relationship between subjective understanding (M = 29.95, SD = 7.34) and the correctness of the answers (M = 1.94, SD = 0.66) in the original group, correlation coefficient (r)[5] = 0.063, p = 0.786. Similarly, the modified group did not demonstrate a significant linear relationship between the rating of self-understanding (M = 33.80, SD = 7.69) and the answers (M = 2.11, SD = 0.90), r = −0.240, p = 0.309.

The absence of correlation reflects a general lack of awareness of whether one has understood a legal text one is reading. It also suggests that some litigants might be overly confident about partial or mistaken knowledge that they have and therefore do not actively seek help. They may find the trial experience and the case outcome unjust if these are significantly different from their understanding and expectation of the law.

The overall results above suggest that the adopted simplifying techniques have a positive impact on the participants’ comprehension of legal materials, and may be of reference value for future production of legal texts.

5. Analysing simplifying techniques

This section aims to further elucidate some of the data that has been reported in the results, and will discuss the use of certain simplifying techniques in relation to comprehension. They include bracketing documents, removing sentence embedding, restating hidden objects and using a flow chart.

5.1 Bracketing

Item 4 required participants to search for the main verb, i.e. 核實 [hat6 sat6] (‘to verify’), of the following Chinese sentence which is placed in between the name of two documents, namely, 屬實申述 [suk6 sat6 san1 seot6] (‘statement of truth’) and 申索陳述書 [san1 saak3 can4 seot6 syu1] (‘statement of claim’).


The plaintiff has to verify the statement of claim by making a statement of truth.

The difficulty of parsing the sentence lies in the confusing part of speech in the Chinese lexemes because, unlike English, there is no marker for part of speech in Chinese morphology. Three constituents of the two document names can potentially behave as a verb: 申述 [san1 seot6] (‘to specify’ or ‘specification’), 申索 [san1 saak3] (‘to claim’ or ‘a claim’) and 陳述 [can4 seot6] (‘to state’ or a ‘statement’). Together with the main verb 核實 [hat6 sat6] (‘to verify’), there are four potential verbs in a row within the same sentence, literally:






has to use







claim/a claim

to state/statement


How a sentence with serial verb construction is read depends on what one identifies from the sentence as verbs.

As expected, a number of the participants identified and mentioned three potential verbs from the document names as a source of confusion, i.e. 申述 [san1 seot6] (‘to specify’), 申索 [san1 saak3] (‘to claim’) and 陳述 [can4 seot6] (‘to state’). Some of them indicated that there were many possible combinations of sentence parsing owing to this string of verbs. Participants also pointed out that the characters in the document names were similar in form and meaning to other words in the sentence. For example, 申述 [san1 seot6] (‘to specify’) and 申索 [san1 saak3] (‘to claim’) seem to possess a similar meaning because of the overlapping character [san1], and the same goes for the character [sat6] in 屬實 [suk6 sat6] (‘be true’) and 核實 [hat6 sat6] (‘to verify’). Yet, the fact that the participants started comparing units with different parts of speech for meaning suggests that they did not know how to break down the sentence.

In order to make the constituents of the sentence more distinctive, the name of these two documents was put in brackets in the modified version. We found that the main verb was more readily identified by the modified group (85%) than the original group (48%), suggesting that bracketing Chinese document names may help sentence parsing.

On the other hand, we obtained a rather low score in both groups when it came to explaining the meaning of the above sentence (item 5). This may have to do with the problem of understanding what a statement of truth is, as often queried by the participants when dealing with item 5 during the experiment. Both versions of the reading material indeed never offered an explanation about the nature of the statement, so the participants could only guess its meaning. The data therefore seem to suggest that a literal reading of the document name could offer little help with understanding. Indeed, no morphological feature in 屬實申述 [suk6 sat6 san1 seot6] (‘statement of truth’) suggests that it is a document. This contrasts with the Chinese equivalent of the statement of claim 申索陳述書 [san1 saak3 can4 seot6 syu1] where the additional character [syu1] (‘book’/‘document’/‘letter’) at the end helps signify the phrase as the name of a document. Such non-equivalent translation may have been done for legal reasons, but an addition of the simple character [syu1] (‘book’/‘document’/‘letter’) can arguably render the documents more recognisable (see Yeung and Leung 2015), and future legal translation may take this into account to enhance the readability of the texts. As for the current reference texts, another simple way to clearly indicate the nature and meaning of the legal terms would be to provide a glossary as a general reference.

5.2 Restating the implied objects

Items 10 and 11 concerned the following sentence in which the implied objects to the verbs 送交存檔 [sung3 gaau1 cyun4 dong2] (‘to file’) and 送達 [sung3 daat6] (‘to serve’) are missing.












base on


















If a defence is served, the plaintiff may file and serve a reply.

The original sentence contained ellipsis of the implied objects while the modified version restated them on every appearance as follows:












base on






















If a defence is served, the plaintiff may file a reply with the court and serve a reply on the defendant.

It should be noted that, in the legal context, the above two verbs are often collocated with specific objects. One should file the concerned document with the court, but serve it on the defendant. It takes legal knowledge for one to understand their usage since legal jargon often is a means of communication between those within the legal field (Mellinkoff 1963). The reference text seems to assume such knowledge in users. However, this assumption is unrealistic, as shown by most of our participants in the original group, who were not aware of such use. Only 4 participants (19%) from the original group were able to state the hidden object to ‘file’ as compared to all 20 participants (100%) in the modified group. As for the verb ‘serve’, the concerned object was correctly identified by only 8 participants (38%) from the original group but by 18 participants (90%) from the modified group.

In fact, some participants from the original group also failed to understand the technical meaning of ‘serving’, let alone the difference between ‘serving’ and ‘filing’. This unawareness may be attributed to the mixed use of technical and ordinary meaning of the same terms. For instance, in addition to the legal usage of file collocating with the court, the original reading sample takes its common meaning to express the act of sending something to somebody, and that somebody can be anyone, e.g. the plaintiff: the court will file a copy of it to the plaintiff. The switch from one sense to another may be confusing. There ought to be some consistency in choice of terminology; otherwise, such legal jargon would only facilitate in-group communication between legal personnel, but exclude communication with others (Tiersma 1999).

5.3 Sentence embedding

Given the hypothetical situation in item 9, participants were required to determine the deadline of completing the legal process described in the sentence below, which contains 48 Chinese characters.


This has to be done before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ or after the statement of claim is served on him, whichever is the later.

This sentence exemplifies two common features of legal language – the use of nominalisation (i.e. expiration) and the construction of a complex and long sentence (Alcaraz Varó and Hughes 2002). Such a lengthy sentence is made possible by the recursive nature of English which enables phrases or clauses to be embedded in a sentence in an infinite way (Yule 2010), and the Chinese version of the sentence seems to have replicated such embeddings through translation. In the English version, the sentence contains two chunks of prepositional phrases: (a) ‘before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ’ and (b) ‘[before the expiration of 28 days (elided)] after the statement of claim is served on him’, as shown by the brackets in the following diagram:

The first prepositional phrase (a) is made up of two smaller prepositional phrases with one being embedded into the other. One has to be able to identify not only these components, but also the connections between them in order to make sense of the sentence. Yet, the lengthy embeddings make such a task difficult.

One may face greater difficulties in parsing the Chinese sentence because the embeddings are made even longer. In the English version, the connector ‘or’ allows an ellipsis of information inside the bracket in (b). Upon translation, however, the abridged information is retained in the Chinese form, resulting in even longer phrases, namely, (c) 該令狀的送達認收時限後28天屆滿前 [goi1 liing6 zong6 di1 sung3 daat6 jan6 sau1 si4 haan6 hau6 28 tin1 gaai3 mun5 cin4] (‘before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ’) and (d) 在申索陳述書送達他後 28天屆滿前 [zoi6 san1 saak3 can4 seot6 syu1 sung3 daat6 taa1 hau6 28 tin1 gaai3 mun5 cin4] (‘before the expiration of 28 days after the statement is served on him’) respectively:

These long prepositional phrases within the brackets may become a potential burden for information processing, as research has shown that the higher the number of embeddings, the lower the rate of comprehension in readers (Charrow and Charrow 1979: 1327). Apart from this, another factor that may complicate comprehension comes from the sentence structure in which the prepositional phrases are placed between the subject and the verb. In Chinese, the sentence reads: ‘This process has to be (c) or (d) done’, where (c) and (d) are the concerned prepositional phrases that amount to 32 characters. The sentence is therefore quite difficult to digest.

Based on this analysis, in the modified version the embedded phrases were separated in the sentence while the key words have been preserved:


  • 該令狀的送達認收時限(14)28 天屆滿前或
  • 在「申索陳述書」送達他後28 天屆滿前

This process has to be done before the following dates, whichever is the later:

  • before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ (14 days)
  • before the expiration of 28 days after the statement of claim is served on him

Results show that the modified group (20%) performed slightly better than the original group (0%), yet the average score remains low. This may be due to the unnatural construction of the phrase 該令狀的送達認收時限後 [goi1 liing6 zong6 di1 sung3 daat6 jan6 sau1 si4 haan6 hau6] (literal translation: ‘that writ’s service acknowledgement time after’; idiomatic translation: ‘after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ’) in both the original and modified texts, in which 送達 [sung3 daat6] (‘to serve’) was used as an adjective (modifying the verb ‘acknowledging’) rather than as a verb, which is common in daily usage. Potential confusion may thus arise as to whether the act is on ‘serving’ or ‘acknowledging’ the document concerned.

The participants’ comments can further offer an insight into the actual difficulties encountered. They mostly regard the length of the original sentence as a hindrance to understanding, and the prepositions [hau6] (‘after’) and [cin4] (‘before’) which are opposite in the temporal dimension caused further conceptual confusion when placed within the same phrase. Cognitive psycholinguistic research suggests that a temporal change would lower the speed and accuracy in memory retrieval of prior information in narrative texts (Speer and Zacks 2005). Therefore, it is not only the sentence length that is in need of simplification, but a more careful treatment of semantic opposites and temporal units is warranted. Readers may find the use of a flow chart, which can visually outline the timeline of events, easier to follow.

5.4 The use of a flow chart

Item 8 required the participants to find out the next step of a case when the defendant chooses to make admission on the Form 16 or 16C. The answer is blended with other information in the original reading material, whereas for the modified one the flow chart directs one to the answer using arrows. Comparing with the modified group in which 75% of the participants were able to state that the case will proceed to a final judgment by the court (‘enter judgment’), only 10% of the participants in the original group were correct. Perhaps, the results could not be fully attributed to the use of a flow chart because an understanding of 作出承認 [zok3 ceot1 sing4 jan6] (‘make admission’) was first needed. This was indeed the question in a preceding item, in which the modified group (90%) also obtained a higher score in explaining the meaning of this phrase than the original one (71%).

The difficulty in comprehension might come from the unnatural form of the Chinese phrase ‘make admission’ (see Yeung and Leung 2015). The phrase is constructed from a verb 作出 [zok3 ceot1] (‘to make’) and a direct object 承認 [sing4 jan6] (‘admission’). By syntactic rules, 作出 [zok3 ceot1] (‘to make’) as a transitive verb requires an object to follow it. Yet what follows instead is 承認 [sing4 jan6] which often behaves as a verb (e.g. ‘to admit’), and rarely as a noun (e.g. ‘admission’). This analysis is bolstered by the absence of such phrases in the corpus established by the Centre for Chinese Linguistics of Peking University (n.d.), which contains 40,947 relevant entries of 作出 [zok3 ceot1] (‘to make’). Indeed, the corpus suggests that common collocates of 作出 [zok3 ceot1] (‘to make’) include nouns such as contributions, regulations, comments, etc. This all points to the current construction of the phrase as collocationally odd, by putting together two words that are typically verbs, e.g. ‘to make’, ‘to admit’. The question that naturally follows is: What does one have to make to admit to? Moreover, in various contexts, such phrases are also found to be unclear in their meaning (Yeung and Leung 2015). Yet, given the importance of the phrase as a key to ending a case, a lack of understanding of its meaning and significance might mislead unrepresented litigants. A clearer elucidation of such a key phrase is therefore urged, and it is worth considering how a flow chart may be useful in this regard. It can help an unrepresented litigant visualise the flow of litigation – which step s/he is currently taking, how the case will proceed along the chosen route, and how the case might come to an end. Even though the efficiency of the use of a flow chart cannot be accurately quantified in our study, readers may be better guided by looking at the visual representation of information as compared to such information being buried in paragraphs.

6. Discussion

Is this a document? Where do I have to take this document to? When do I have to complete this process? These were among the questions that had to be answered by both groups of our university-educated participants. These simple and basic questions were surprisingly difficult to answer, even when the official reference materials were laid down in front of them. It should also be noted that our participants are in general better educated than the average citizen of Hong Kong. According to the statistics up to 2010, 74.6% of the Hong Kong population aged over 15 years old had not received post-secondary education (Census and Statistics Department 2012). In fact, only 18% of the students were admitted to university in Hong Kong in 2011 (Wen Wei Po 2011). Therefore, if university students had problems comprehending the original reference texts just to prepare for one stage in a civil proceeding, it is very likely that the general public would face an even bigger challenge when going through the whole litigation process themselves (also see Stygall 2010 for challenges faced by the general population in understanding financial documents). This brings up two questions: What is the issue that stands in the way of comprehension, and what can be done?

The results largely point to certain features of Chinese legal language that compromise the comprehensibility of the information, such as confusing parts of speech (e.g. 申索陳述書 [san1 saak3 can4 seot6 syu1] (‘statement of claim’) which literally reads as ‘to claim to state a book’), unusual collocations (e.g. 作出承認 [zok3 ceot1 sing4 jan6] (‘make admission’) which reads as ‘to make to admit’) and opaque contractions (e.g. 送達 [sung3 daat6] (‘to serve’) whose object is missing). As demonstrated, a potential solution to rectify these problems is to adopt a plain-language style of writing which involves simplifying difficult sentence structure and non-technical words. Such simplifying techniques are based on the doctrine of plain language – keeping the information as accessible as possible (Asprey 2003). We facilitated information processing by distinguishing confusing document names with brackets, alleviating the memory burden with less sentence embedding, demanding a lower level of vocabulary with more frequently used terms, and giving a clear direction through the case with a flow chart. Even though efficiency varies from one modification to another, the results from this study suggest that the techniques as a whole may be useful in aiding comprehension.

Among the techniques, the use of bracketing proved to be especially useful in Chinese. Brackets help sentence parsing by identifying document names and preventing their verb-behaving constituents from being mixed with other components of the sentence. However, identifying the part of speech seems to be less of a problem in English because of its morphology. It is clear that techniques involved in writing in plain language require language-specific adaptations.

Apart from the use of plain language, we also suggest the compilation of a glossary to improve the readability of the reference texts. The participants indeed frequently commented on the lack of definition of terminology, even though some of the terms have seemingly been explained in the materials. This may suggest that, in addition to in-text explanations, a more generic reference document is needed. Special attention should be paid to legal terms that are similar in morphological form. For instance, 送交 [sung3 gaau1] (‘to file’) and 送達 [sung3 daat6] (‘to serve’) are two different words that require the actions to be done on two different objects. However, since these two words both carry the sense of giving as denoted by the common morpheme [sung3] (‘to give’), one would easily overlook the difference. In fact, in items 10 and 11, which asked the participants to find out the objects to these two words, most participants simply treated the two words as synonyms that are used with the same object. Therefore, the much-needed glossary ought to include morphologically similar but semantically different words for comparison.

The above simplifying techniques and suggested glossary may render the current legal reference texts more readable to a certain extent. However, amending such texts could not entirely solve the problems caused and faced by unrepresented litigants. The government should look into other complementary measures to serve unrepresented litigants’ needs. It might be relevant to first understand the government’s position on this issue. There seems to be ambivalence towards the government’s role in maintaining the integrity of the judicial system and the public’s interests. It has been argued that judicial formalism is compromised by unrepresented litigants (Ng 2009). On the other hand, laypeople have the right to a fair trial. Despite the government’s promise to provide appropriate assistance to unrepresented litigants (Judiciary Administration 2008), the existing resources provided may not be effective (the reference materials being a prime example). One might then ask what other areas the government should look into.

One possible area that needs government attention is legal aid. A government survey reported that 63% of 343 litigants chose to represent themselves because they could not afford a lawyer (The Steering Committee on Resource Centre for Unrepresented Litigants 2002). Many of them probably do not qualify for legal aid either, given that the financial eligibility limits for legal aid are ‘miserably low’ in spite of inflation (Kwok 2012: A15; Wilkinson 2000). It is worth examining whether legal aid should benefit a wider range of citizens. As there is a lack of both resources and statutory power for the Legal Aid Service Council to effectively run the legal aid service, legal aid provision in Hong Kong is ripe for reform (Kwok 2012). In addition, the same government survey also revealed that 76% of the respondents were not aware of the two major free legal advice schemes in Hong Kong, namely, the Duty Lawyer Service Free Legal Advice Scheme and the Bar Association Free Legal Service Scheme. Therefore, publicising the existing free legal advice schemes may also be needed.

Apart from this, providing public legal education may also be of help. It is not hard to find examples of unrepresented litigants failing to adhere to proper courtroom behaviour. In one real case, an unrepresented litigant shouted ‘Objection!’ to the judge when the other party was testifying (Ng 2009: 165). Such verbal behaviour is often portrayed in popular legal drama series, which are likely to be a source of unrepresented litigants’ folk legal knowledge. Although it is not illegal, the unexpected behaviour may disrupt courtroom dynamics. The judiciary also found the described scene to be one of the many ridiculous and misleading legal portrayals on television that ought to be rectified (Apple Daily 2012). The judiciary indeed had dispatched prosecutors to major television companies in Hong Kong to teach them about proper courtroom behaviour (Apple Daily 2012). However, such legal education should not be confined to broadcasters. The general public should be able to receive first-hand knowledge as well.

7. Conclusion

A major reason why unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong fail to competently represent themselves is because of their lack of understanding of the law (Cameron and Kelly 2002; Kelly and Cameron 2003; Cameron et al. 2006; Kelly et al. 2006). The government’s attempts to provide them with legal information has only addressed this issue partially by improving their access to information. Yet it largely neglects the users’ perspective – whether the information is comprehensible to them or not. This has implications for whether the newly engineered Chinese legal language can communicate well with the general public and for what can be done to improve citizens’ access to justice. Our study fills this empirical gap and shows that reference texts, in their current form, might be difficult to understand unless they were simplified. It should be noted that the texts we examined are targeted at laypeople. If these texts were not comprehensible to laypeople, then other texts written in the Chinese legal language in Hong Kong, such as statutory texts, would be even more alienating.

Our study suggests that a way to minimise the alienating gap lies in the use of plain language, and this has implications on different levels. On a practical level, current reference texts can benefit their target audience to a greater extent by using such language. Whether or not the language is comprehensible or plain enough is best determined by readers’ experience. This outcomes-focused approach adopted in our study is likely to produce documents that are user-friendly to readers (Cheek 2010). Therefore, the study further suggests that the Hong Kong judiciary should conduct similar empirical work for future legislation enactment by considering not only the opinions of legal personnel and linguists, but the end-users in a system where self-litigation is commonly practised as well.

At a theoretical level, our work adds weight to an argument against a deterministic view of language, which is still surprisingly popular in the legal context. In Hong Kong, doubts have been cast about the capability of the Chinese language as a legal language for common law (Tang 1998; Kwan 2011). It seems that whenever a language is newly adopted as a legal language, there is no shortage of doubts about its inherent ability to convey legal meaning (Leung in press). For example, Bahasa Malaysia (BM) has been criticised by Azzat (2001 cited in Leung in press) as not having the vocabulary and sophistication to carry legal concepts in Malaysia; Filipino, a language associated with the less well educated in the Philippines, has been deemed linguistically immature as a legal language (Leung, in press). Yet few scholars question whether the apparent struggle for these languages to express legal meaning comes from aspects of language use. Our work has identified the drafting style of Chinese reference texts as a potential obstacle to comprehension, which can be minimised by using plain-language techniques. Rather than generic plain-language techniques, we have also shown that certain language-specific adaptations may be required. Therefore, when a new legal language seems rather incomprehensible, it may be that the way it is written is inappropriate; when plain language does not seem to be effective in the new legal language, it may be that the simplifying techniques have not been adapted to it. Any jurisdiction in the process of becoming bilingual ought to look into such possibilities before questioning the ability of its new legal language.

A shift of attention in legal language studies from brutal criticisms of legal language to constructive explorations of ways of improvement would eventually benefit the public’s understanding of the law and the judicial system as a whole.

About the authors

Matthew Yeung is a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong. He is currently working on legal bilingualism in Hong Kong with a particular focus on the interaction between laypeople and the law.

Janny Leung obtained her MPhil and PhD in English and Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge, and an LLB from the University of London. She is Associate Professor in the School of English, The University of Hong Kong, where she co-directs and teaches in a double degree programme in Law and Literary Studies (BA & LLB). Her current research interests cover interdisciplinary areas in law, linguistics and psychology; her first monograph (OUP) focuses on bilingual and multilingual legal systems. She was a Harvard Yenching Scholar in 2013–2014.


[1]. The official website can be found at

[2]. Standard deviation (SD) is a measure of dispersion of data values (DeSanto and Totoro, 2008).

[3]. Standard error of the mean (SEM) is ‘a measure of how much a sample mean is likely to deviate from the population mean’ (DeSanto and Totoro, 2008: 372). A small value of SEM shows that the sampling mean is relatively close to the population mean.

[4]. According to DeSanto and Totoro (2008: 483), if the p-value falls between 0.01 and 0.05, the result is significant; if it is between 0.05 and 0.1, the result is marginally significant; if it is bigger than 0.1, the result is not significant.

[5]. Correlation coefficient (r) measures the strength of the relationship between two variables, and the value of r ranges from -1 to 1: there is a positive relationship when r is greater than 0; a negative relationship when r is less than 0 (Hinton, 2004).


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Case cited

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Appendices: Experiment materials

Appendix A1: Original version of the reading material in English

11. The pleading stage

11.1 The usual procedures at the pleading stage are as follows:

  • The plaintiff commences the action by issuing and filing with the Court Registry a writ of summons. The writ of summons should be endorsed with a statement of claim. The plaintiff has to verify the statement of claim by making a statement of truth.
  • The plaintiff has to serve the writ and statement of claim on all the defendants.
  • With the commencement of the Civil Justice Reform, if the plaintiff’s claim is only for payment of money, he should also serve the defendant with a statutory form (Form No. 16 or Form No. 16C) for the defendant to make admission under Order 13A of the Rules of the High Court (or the Rules of the District Court as the case may be).
  • Within 14 days after being served with the writ, the defendant files an acknowledgment of service at the Court Registry, stating in it whether he intends to contest the claim. The Court will send a copy of it to the plaintiff.
  • If the defendant is served with a Form No. 16 or Form No. 16C and he admits the monetary claim or any part of it and/or having admitted the claim, wishes to pay by instalments, he should complete the form, file it with the Court and also serve a copy on the plaintiff.
  • If the defendant contests the claim, he should file and serve on the plaintiff a defence and (if applicable) a counterclaim. The defence and counterclaim have to be verified by a statement of truth. This has to be done before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ or after the statement of claim is served on him, whichever is the later.
  • If a defence is served, the plaintiff may file and serve a reply. If there is a counterclaim, the plaintiff has to file and serve a defence to counterclaim. The reply and defence to counterclaim has to be verified by a statement of truth and must be filed and served within 28 days after being served with the defence and counterclaim.
  • At this stage, the pleadings are said to be closed.
  • If a defendant does not file the acknowledgment of service and/or fails to serve a defence on the plaintiff within the prescribed time, the plaintiff can apply to the Court to enter judgment on his claim. If judgment is granted, a full trial is not required.
  • If the plaintiff has an unliquidated claim (i.e. the amount of award has to be assessed by the Court, for example, for loss of profits or damages for injury to person or property), judgment on liability will be entered if the defendant fails to file the acknowledgment of service or defence. But the plaintiff will have to attend Court so that a Master or a Judge will assess the amount that he is entitled to.

Appendix A2: Modified version of the reading material in English

10.1 Pleading stage

Appendix B: A selected question with the marking scheme


The plaintiff has to verify the statement of claim by making a statement of truth.



Please find out the main verb of the above sentence; that is the action the sentence requires you to perform. (Item4)

核實 (verify)


請解釋句子的意思。(Item 5)

Please explain the meaning of the sentence. (Item 5)


(The plaintiff needs to use a document to verify the content of another document, namely ‘the statement of claim’ as truth)


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