International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, Vol 8, No 2 (2001)

Textualizing the law

Peter Tiersma
Issued Date: 5 Mar 2007


Much of the work of lawyers consists of the production or interpretation of various sorts of legal texts. Many of these texts are authoritative or operative, in the sense that they create or modify a legal relation, institution, or state of affairs. Historically, there is a general progression from oral legal act, to an oral act with a written record, to an authoritative written text. Such authoritative texts differ from speech and other types of writing in that they are more autonomous. They tend to be drafted to be as clear and complete as possible, embodying all relevant communicative intentions of the author. Consequently, they are interpreted in a relatively literal or decontextualized fashion. Moreover, they are generally regarded as complete expressions of the author, making evidence of oral statements outside of the text virtually irrelevant from a legal point of view. Such consequences can be problematic for those with limited experience with these conventions. Nonetheless, authoritative legal texts can perform several useful functions, such as marking a text as effectuating a binding legal act and clearly delineating what is included within it and what is not. Despite some drawbacks, as well as the impact of technological change, it seems that the authoritative legal text is here to tay.

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DOI: 10.1558/sll.2001.8.2.73


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