Prosecutors urged to drop legal jargon for ‘plain English’

Criticism related to the handling of complaints made by members of the public. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Criticism related to the handling of complaints made by members of the public. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Prosecutors have been warned their use of legal jargon is leaving members of the public confused about their role in the justice system.

Inspectors called on the Crown Office’s Response and Information Unit (RIU) to provide responses in “plain English” instead of using procedural terminology without properly explaining what it meant.

The independent Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland used a report on complaints handling and feedback to highlight examples where the response to complaints from members of the public was undermined by impenetrable jargon.

In one, a woman seeking an explanation as to why her elderly husband had been arrested and kept in the cells overnight was issued a response which used phrases such as “appear from custody”, “libelled a charge” and “liberated on an undertaking”.

While inspectors said the Crown’s response had come in good time and was “empathetic”, they argued it had been let down by confusing legal language.

In another case, a victim concerned about the sentence handed down by a sheriff was sent a response detailing why prosecutors did not intend to appeal the sentence.

The reply was said to include “overly formal and jargonistic terminology”, including phrases such as “prosecuted under solemn proceedings”, “petition warrant”, “full committal” and “first diet”.

HM Chief Inspector Michelle Macleod said: “Critical to a good complaints-handling system and improving service delivery is an underpinning culture that values complaints and commits to learning from them.

“While we found the complaints handling staff in the RIU, a national specialist unit that handles complaints and feedback, were helpful and skilled, and that there was a genuine willingness and commitment to improve the complaints-handling process, there was less evidence of ‘buy in’ from the wider organisation about the need to learn from complaints.

“We welcome the recent appointment by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service of a senior prosecutor as their first customer service champion. This provides an opportunity to promote a culture focused on people rather than process, where complaints are valued as a key indicator of customer satisfaction, and as a source of feedback to identify recurrent themes and systematic issues.”

The inspectorate’s report made a total of 15 recommendations, which have been accepted in full by the Crown Office. The Crown Office said many of the issues raised had already been addressed.