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Publication Title

Canadian Business Law Jounral



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Plain English movement, Citibank, New York, Citibank of New York, legalese


One of the dominant events between 1975 and today in United States consumer law was the birth of what has become known as the "plain English movement". For centuries lawyers have been derided for the nature of their prose. A word will not suffice where two or even three can take its place; long sentences are preferable to short ones; Latin, or perhaps medieval French, are preferable to English. The plain English movement is the name given to the first effective effort to change this and to write legal documents, particularly those used by consumers, in a manner that can be understood, not just by the legal technicians who draft them, but by the consumers who are bound by their terms. One can date the beginning of the plain English movement with some accuracy. On January 1, 1975, Citibank of New York introduced a plain English consumer promissory note. A team of businessmen, lawyers and language consultants had stripped the prior version, a dense and essentially unreadable document, of many substantive provisions and cleansed the remaining verbiage. Citibank knew it was on to something. The form was introduced at a major press conference which received television coverage. The note did indeed hit a responsive chord. It received national, and even international, attention. It was particularly welcomed by consumer activists who saw it as a major break- through in terms of consumer communication. Inevitably, a bill was introduced in the New York legislature requiring that Citibank's contribution be mandated as a matter of law. The bill, in fact, referred only to promissory notes and provided that all such obligations would have to be written in the form of the Citibank note. Citibank, understandably flattered, nevertheless opposed the bill. Happily, it was not passed. The bill and then the law were highly criticized, indeed ridiculed, for the vagueness of the language standard. How can a draftsman know what is clear or coherent or common or everyday? What is clear to one (a lawyer, for instance) may well not be clear to another. If the standard were related to the understanding of a specialized group, the law could undercut its own purpose. Surely an already overburdened court system would become immobilized testing whether the words in consumer contracts were common and everyday. Thus did the critics attempt to make a mockery of the statute and reduce what was at least the germ of a good idea to nonsense. Why the statute did not glut the New York courts and how New York converted its contracts from legalese to plain English with minimal turmoil we will address at a later point.