A document that crossed over my desk recently related to a civil claim in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The “show cause summons” for a party to attend a hearing was dominated by a large warning stamped across the text in red. There clearly have been difficulties maintaining standards of dress and decorum in Virginian courts. The warning reads:

Proper attire required in Court Rooms. NO shorts, NO halter/tank tops, NO sleeveless t-shirts, NO shirts exposing the midriff, NO hats, NO food, drink or gum, NO cell phones in Courthouse, NO small children allowed in courtroom unless by summons. Failure to comply may find you in contempt and/or fined or incarceration

The sharpness of the message reminded me of the difference between warning signs (for which brevity and simplicity is paramount) and legal drafting (which also has to achieve precision).

The words on the summons seems precise, but are they really?  I am not sure of whether all rules apply in the “Court Rooms” in the “Courthouse” or in the “courtroom.” In addition, we could be looking for a bit more consistency and clarity in regard to terminology.  For example, what are “small” children? Does that mean children under 12 years of age, or is it related to height or weight? If this is the case, it should be clearly stated. Avoid unnecessary complexity. Plain English means that we should try to make the language understandable to the target audience. In this case, it would be better to avoid archaicisms such as “attire” or “incarceration.”  

Consider the following version:

Appropriate clothing is to be worn at all times in court buildings. This means that for example, but without limitation, shorts, halter/tank tops, sleeveless t-shirts, shirts exposing the midriff and hats are not allowed. In addition, food, drink, gum and cell phones are not allowed in court buildings. A child under the age of 12 is not allowed in any court room unless that child has been requested to attend the hearing by summons. Any person failing to comply with any of the above may be found in contempt of court and made subject to a fine or imprisonment.

But this is not a suitable text for a warning. The short, simple message is lost in the length. In contract drafting we have to struggle on a daily basis with this apparent conflict between brevity and precision. The answer is always a compromise.

That is why I know that the sign on a building site stating “NO ANIMALS OR CHILDREN” is not a political call to avoid house pets or increase contraception, but rather it is a safety warning. It is just a shame that the animals and children concerned probably cannot read it.