Plain English and the law

9 Feb 2017

New booklet shows how unclear communication can lead to costly court cases

A new booklet called ‘Plain English and the law: the legal consequences of clear and unclear communication’ was launched today, Thursday 9 February 2017.  The purpose of the booklet is to show how plain English can save companies time and money by avoiding unnecessary legal costs. It is a joint initiative by the National Adult Literacy Agency and Mason Hayes & Curran.

The booklet presents ‘lessons’ from three Irish legal cases where the interpretation of language was central to the outcome of the court case. Two of the legal case studies show how unclear language was argued in court. A third legal case study shows how a case was won because it was proven that a company had provided clear information to a consumer. The court cases and lessons are:

  1. Ickendel Ltd V Bewley Café Grafton Street: a lesson for landlords and tenants
  2. Corbally V Medical Council: a lesson for regulators
  3. ACC Bank V Kelly: a lesson for consumers and banks

Justice Peter Kelly, President of the High Court has written the foreword in the new booklet in which he says: “The case studies in this book are cautionary tales.  Having spent twenty years as a Judge of the High Court and the Court of Appeal I have seen many instances where the use of plain English would have avoided litigation.  This book provides an opportunity to promote the use of plain English particularly in the business world.  One would expect the business community to be fully supportive of the plain English movement if for no other reason than that it will save money.”

The booklet is divided into three parts.

  1. Part one provides the evidence of the legal consequences of unclear communication in three court cases in Ireland.
  2. Part two describes what plain English is and how it is gaining traction - from public demands for clear consumer contracts to the emphasis on plain language in the Central Bank of Ireland’s Consumer Protection Code.
  3. Part three provides guidance on how to write in plain English, words and phrases to avoid, document design tips and other useful resources.

The booklet was launched today by the National Adult Literacy Agency and Mason Hayes & Curran at their Plain English Awards in the Law Society of Ireland, Dublin.

Inez Bailey, CEO, National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) said: “We developed this booklet with Mason Hayes & Curran because we wanted to provide evidence of how plain English can save companies time and money by avoiding unnecessary legal costs. Giving people information in a language they understand enables them to make informed choices, access their entitlements and meet their legal opportunities. Not only does it make good business sense but it’s fair.”

Declan Black, Managing Partner at Mason Hayes & Curran said: “At Mason Hayes & Curran we often see that poorly written communications lead to misunderstanding and disputes. The stories in the book are just the tip of the iceberg because they are based on decided cases. Every day, businesses settle cases or deal with regulatory issues which could have been avoided if communication was clear, accurate and in plain English. Our ambition for lawyers in MHC is that they are always clear, accurate and, where possible, brief! We hope that this booklet, developed in conjunction with NALA, will show the benefit of this approach for all types of organisations.”

For media queries, please contact:

Clare McNally, Communications Manager, National Adult Literacy Agency: 01 412 7909 or 087 648 6292.

Patrick Gleeson, Communications Officer, National Adult Literacy Agency: 01 412 7916 or 086 792 5363.


Sample case study: alesson for landlords and tenants

As clear a mud: the Bewley’s rent review case.

This case was about a 35 year lease over the site of the Bewley’s Café on Grafton street in Dublin. The tenant, Bewley’s Café, and the landlord, Ickendel Limited, disputed the sections of their lease that dealt with ‘rent review’ and in particular the expression or clause referring to “preceding period”.

The tenant’s view was that the level of rent could go up or down after each rent review but that the amount could not fall below the rate it was first set at in 1987 (£168,000).  But the Landlord took a very different view. The Landlord interpreted the clause as providing for an “upwards only” rent review mechanism.  Having an upwards only rent review mechanism in a lease means that the rent can either stay the same or go up after each review period but that it could not be reduced.

The case went to the High Court where it was found in favour of the Tenant, and then the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court who ended up finding in favour of the Landlord. That is, that the rent review clause was actually an upwards only rent review clause.  

This judgment makes it clear that it is important that documents are clearly drafted to accurately reflect what is intended by both parties. If the Lease had been drafted so that it was clear how the rent review mechanism was to work, then the parties would not have ended up in dispute. This would have avoided the hassle, time and costs of going to court.

The case, in both courts, remains a lesson in the importance of clear written communication.


About the National Adult Literacy Agency

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is a charity committed to making sure people with literacy difficulties can fully take part in society. In Ireland, one in six adults has difficulty understanding basic written text[1]. Since we were set up by volunteers in 1980, we have been a leading campaigning and lobbying force on adult literacy issues. We provide a plain English editing and training service to increase opportunities for people with literacy difficulties to access important information on their rights and entitlements. We work to assist organisations to fulfil their responsibilities in this regard. Plain English benefits all of us, and it is particularly helpful for people with low literacy levels.

About Mason Hayes & Curran

Mason Hayes & Curran is an award-winning business law firm providing strategic and commercial legal advice in Ireland. Key areas of expertise include Mergers and Acquisitions, Securities Law, Tax, Financial Services and Litigation across a range of sectors including energy, healthcare, technology, real estate and banking.One of our key objectives at Mason Hayes & Curran is to ensure that our legal advice is clear and accurate. We believe in the shared value approach, where the success of both our business and the community in which we operate are connected. As a top Irish law firm, we feel that we can invest in our society and communities through responsible business practices and contributions of our resources. 

Download 'Plain English and the law' for free here.


[1]OECD Adult Skills Survey 2013