RELINE – Annual seminar 2012

RELINE legal linguistics network (see my post describing the initiative) recently held its annual seminar in Nyborg, Denmark. The title of this year’s seminar was Talking like a Lawyer – Talking with a Lawyer, and it took place immediately after a PhD course entitled Communication and Rhetoric in the Judicial Process. Attendees were warmly welcomed by the network’s initiators and seminar organizers Professor Anne Lise Kjær and Professor Jan Engberg.

The main theme of the seminar was the significant impact that communication and lawyers’ rhetoric have on the success and outcome of lawsuits and criminal trials.

In accordance with RELINE’s purpose and spirit, the seminar was a meeting-place for researchers and practitioners from different disciplines with the opportunity to exchange research results, experience, thoughts, and ideas about the relationship between law and language. Here are some summaries of certain talks that I thought might be of interest to readers.

Professor Kati Hannken-Illjes, Musikhochschule Stuttgart, Germany

The career of arguments in German criminal proceedings

Professor Hannken-Illjes presented an interdisciplinary research project (involving sociologists, ethnographers, lawyers, linguists) examining the pathways of lawyers’ arguments in criminal cases from the United States, the UK, and Germany (and initially also Italy).

The German strand of the project involved an in-depth examination of 16 criminal cases. During the PhD course, we had a hands-on opportunity to examine the case file, and to draw our own conclusions about the themes to be singled out as lines of argument. In her seminar presentation, the Professor focused particularly on units of analysis (topoi, themes and/or arguments), and the failures of such themes. A key conclusion of the study was that in the German system, defense attorneys become more used to ‘thinking on their feet’ following the submission of unexpected evidence which is not permitted in many systems.

Professor Lawrence Solan, Brooklyn Law School, USA

Linguistic ambiguity¹ in legal settings

Professor Solan’s talk covered three main areas of legal interpretation – of statutes, of wills, and of contracts.

He started with differentiating three ways to interpret legal texts: a de dicto reading (of the word), de re (of the thing) and a non-specific reading.

Professor Solan gave a number of examples from case law of the above three interpretations. Regarding statues, we looked at disability legislation and bank robbery as a federal crime and saw how interpretations are wide-ranging, even “chaotic” as Solan put it. For wills, he described the situation as more “sensible” – a kind of default position. In the area of contracts, Professor Solan underlined the shift in US law from a de dicto position to that of de re, but used the word “mischief” to describe the way in which language may be ‘skewed’ by the various parties involved.

In conclusion, he underlined that in Europe a court would be extremely unlikely to ignore the purpose of a statute in order to look for “linguistic hooks” on which to hang an argument – or in other words that as regards the US, as he has said previously “it is possible to rely too much on the language itself and not enough on context to sustain a legal system with adequate moral basis“.

Walk and talk on the beach

Prof. Lin Adrian led an excellent session to mix and match participants. Despite a light drizzle, groups of 2 and 3 people that hadn’t previously been in contact got to know each other and discussed their impressions whilst walking along the shoreline. A highly recommended way to pick up flagging energy levels in the mid-afternoon.

RELINE special interest groups

Prof. Morten Rosenmeier, Professor of intellectual property law at the University of Copenhagen, chaired a session during which the different interest groups at RELINE presented their current projects.

For the Bibliography group, Ingrid Simmonæs presented a database of research articles and publications – it includes not only references but also abstracts and conclusions, enabling scholars to assess whether the whole article falls within their interests. Shortly the database will be open access to the RELINE network, enabling members to upload and comment upon entries.

We heard about the activities of the Plain language group from Anne Kjærgaard and Lene Rosenmeier (more about that tomorrow!).

The Court group is looking not only at interdisciplinary issues but also at inter-geographical ones. So far, there have been group visits to Courts, and members include both lawyers and linguists.

The Intellectual Property Rights group is looking for more members to join its ranks, so if it’s your field – go ahead!


The seminar was held on a very beautiful island at a hotel on the seashore. You can see a few views on the right (click to enlarge).

Here are a few take-away quotes from the seminar:

  • “Lawyers hire experts. Lawyers are insincere. Lawyers want an expert who will help them win.”
  • “Legal terminology is so complex that it creates borders which lay people don’t understand.”
  • “Sincerity suspended”
  • “There is a low level of consciousness of language issues”
  • “Outsiders don’t understand.”
  • “Should law students receive linguistic training/instruction?”
  • “Lawyers are windsurfers on an ocean of ambiguity!”


¹ For a very visual explanation of ambiguity, see this nice blog post, involving elephants, pajamas and Groucho Marx. 🙂 For a collection of practical case examples see the paper De Re and De Dicto, by R.E. Rodes, Jr.

One thought on “RELINE – Annual seminar 2012

  1. Pingback: Plain language in Denmark « From Words to Deeds: translation & the law

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