Does legal text have to be so spotty?

financial-information, fine-print, small-print, typography
Rob Waller

Legal documents often define key terms at the start, to clarify what is meant by ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘the contract period’, and so on. They then signal the defined terms in bold or colour whenever they appear. This one's from a Standard Life ISA:

The result is a spotty text that’s very hard to read. For one thing, headings no longer stand out so well, because there’s bold everywhere. And we’re so used to seeing bold used for emphasis that we find ourselves reading with a special stress on the bold words.

Try reading this sentence from Tesco’s pet insurance policy: ‘We will not pay for any treatment or complementary therapy your pet receives during a period of insurance if we have not received the agreed premium for that period of insurance’.

The spotty text convention is only used for certain parts of the document. Tesco’s Pet Insurance policy booklet starts with welcome information written normally, than progresses to general information about how to cancel and complain, and data privacy information. Here, the occasional stray we and us can be glimpsed, before passing through a Definitions page, after which the full rash of spots afflicts every page.

Oddly, the find-and-replace bolding runs on beyond the policy text, making for some strange emphasis in a customer advice page that’s written in a marketing tone of voice: ‘Coming to terms with the loss of a beloved pet can be hard…,’ ‘that’s why we offer handy helplines…’

What’s going on here? Spotty text appears to be a signifier of a core legal text that has a different, more special status than any other part of the conversation between customer and company. It is implied that this is the part of the text that will really count when it comes to deciding on a claim. Whatever is said in other parts of the text, it seems to suggest, does not matter. That’s surely doubtful.

Spotty text only seems to occur in certain classes of legal document, in particular those relating to financial services. It is the norm for insurance policies, but looking through my own life’s paperwork, it does not appear in wills, employment contracts, tenancy agreements or leases.

An alternative technique is to use initial capitals for defined terms, which are a little less disruptive than bold type. But even these aren’t strictly necessary. Actually, the real alternative is to write carefully, making sure that wherever defined terms are used, they are used in the sense you intend. Or should that be ‘you intend’?

Richard Castle, a lawyer himself and co-author of the authoritative Modern Legal Drafting has campaigned against unnecessary capitals for many years. In a recent email he commented that ‘The best drafters are in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in Whitehall. They don’t emphasise defined terms, even by capitalizing them.’

If they really aren’t legally necessary, using bold for defined terms is just wasting ammunition. In the example below, Privilege Insurance shows how to use bold to clarify the information structure. This wouldn’t work if bold was also used for defined terms.

Contact us