eLaw Journal: Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law, Vol 16, No 1 (2009)

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Graphic and Symbolic Representation of Law: Lessons From Cross-Disciplinary Research

Peter Robinson


The cry for plain English is still heard, but not so loudly in recent times. In the 1980’s it was touted as the panacea for inscrutability in legislation and legal expression. In its wake, fundamental changes were made to the way that legislation and law were written and presented, and the fingerprints of those changes – finely structured and labeled provisions, preference for everyday, non-legalistic words, separate and generous dictionaries, bolded terms, etc. – are common in modern legislation and consumer contracts. Unfortunately, what is as common today as ever is the blank expression on the face of a student grappling with a rather elementary provision, or the more hostile look of a client who just ‘doesn’t get it’.

Similarly, graphic and pictorial formats have been promoted as promising solutions to the difficulties of understanding law, but again the results are less tangible. While it is common to see features like concept maps and flow charts within course materials and even legislation, in the educational arena any consequent improvement in legal problem-solving is elusive.

This article summarises the author’s research into the cognitive and linguistic reasons for common difficulties in comprehending law written in natural language, and the pros and cons of symbolic and graphical alternatives. It also documents some visual methods that have been implemented with some success in a modern organisational setting.

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