ILLA (International Language and Law Association) 2021 Focus Conference

Photo by Mattia Bericchia on Unsplash

Conference: The Digitalisation of Legal Discourse: Digital Genres, Media and Analytical Tools Bergamo and Online

Date: 16-17 December 2021

Location: University of Bergamo, Piazza Rosate 2, Bergamo, Italy and online 


I attended this conference in Bergamo, lucky enough to live about an hour away in the city of Lecco, in the North of Italy. While I’m in no way a linguist, I am interested in attending law and language-focused events to stay up to date and informed as a legal English trainer and to network with other legal English professionals. For other conference, write-ups see here.

After registration and checking of green passes etc. the conference was opened by one of the organisers, Patrizia Anesa,  Associate professor at the University of Bergamo. ‘Onliners’ joined on Microsoft Teams and there were about a dozen of us in person. The conference had 2 sessions running simultaneously, and I stayed in room 1 for the whole of the conference.  Sessions were facilitated in room 1 by Virginia Zorzi and Stefania Consonni from the University of Bergamo.

In this write up I’ve tried to give an accurate overview of the talks I attended, if you are an author of a talk and have any comments to add please do so in the comment section below or drop me an email:

PLENARY LECTURE 1: Dissemination and popularization of German refugee law on the Web

Author: Jan Engberg, Aarhus University (Denmark)

Jan Engberg, Professor of Knowledge Communication at Aarhus University, was introduced by Maurizio Gotti, Director of CERLIS, the research centre on specialised languages at the University of Bergamo.  Jan presented his research project where he analysed 2 versions of the German Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge website (the German federal authority for migrants and refugees), 1 version from 2018, and 1 from 2021. Jan studied how public bodies communicate legal information to citizens and comply with ‘Bürgernähe’, a concept about the government being citizen-focused and citizen-friendly. 

Jan spoke about different positions governments can take when disseminating information, from a bureaucratic model e.g. ‘these are the rules, follow them’ to a  participatory model where citizens are seen as participants in governance. He mentioned that the following elements are important when communicating expert knowledge to non-experts:

  • create rapport through interaction and participation
  • work with the text to make it more understandable and accessible
  • reformulate and explain phrases and terminology
  • reduce complexity, focus on core points, not the periphery information

In conclusion, Jan found that the 2021 website was more citizen-focused than the 2018 version, focusing on core information which would be relevant to each user. 

Free specialist advice?  Examining legal advertising from a genre perspective

Author: Ruth Breeze, University of Navarra (Spain)

Ruth’s presentation focused on how legal websites in England and Wales present themselves. She was concerned with whether lawyers’ websites which puport to provide free services, but where the client may incur a cost if they engage a lawyer, are misleading to the public.

Ruth gave an introduction explaining the history of advertising in the UK and US. Legal advertising has been allowed in the US since 1977,  and in England and Wales, since 1986.   

Ruth presented 2 types of websites, firstly those of NGOs which provide free legal advice, and other sites of lawyers who provide a service (potentially not free), but which present themselves as providing a free service. She found many similarities between the 2 types of websites:

  • both use images of lawyers and clients
  • both present left to right presentation of a problem and solution

She also highlighted some differences.  The lawyers’ websites encourage users to ‘get in touch’ whereas the NGO sites encourage users to ‘get involved’. The lawyers’ sites highlight their expert status, use testimonials, and uses the language ‘free advice’ more than the NGO sites. 


Developing and disseminating scholarly legal ideas through law blog posts

Author:  Giuliana Diani, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy)

Giuliana presented her research analysing blog posts written by British and American law professors commenting on legal cases relating to US and UK court decisions, namely the SCOTUS  blog and the UK Constitutional Law blog.  She wanted to investigate how law professor bloggers argue their points in expert-expert communication. She found that the blog posts were often structured to quote cases first, then comment on them using language such as:

  • I agree with x for reasons I set out and endorse here…
  • I argue that…
  • It is hardly surprising that…
  • It is important to note that…

She didn’t see differences in argument language between the US and UK sites. 


Interaction dynamics and remote participation in the International Criminal Court proceedings

Author: Jekaterina Nikitina, UniCamillus – International Medical University in Rome (Italy)

Jekaterina presented her study analysing the trial stage of the case The Prosecutor v. Alfred Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona before the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The trial took place during the pandemic and heavily relied on videoconferencing. 

In her study, Jekaterina analysed material available online, such as transcripts and videos, to explore the interactions between the court and in-person and remote trial participants. She found that new rituals were developed in the case, such as the judge asking several times for the parties to introduce their appearance. In normal court trials this is simply done at the beginning of the hearing, whereas during the pandemic, due to a limited number of people being allowed into the courtroom, and attending online also, there had to be numerous introductions. Additionally, remote participants would not be fully visible on screen when they stood up, and therefore they, and all in-person participants, were permitted by the judge to remain seated when addressing the court. 

Screening the Law: Popularization of Law in American Legal Drama Series (a case study of How To Get Away With Murder)

Author: Farida Bouniatova, Moscow State University (Russia)

Farida presented research into whether the series ‘How to get away with murder’, is an accurate reflection of lawyer/law student life, and whether it is a useful resource for education or soley for entertainment. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a presentation about this show, I attended the talk by Federico Pio Gentile ‘Legal Discourse and On-screen Transposition – The “How to Get away with Murder” Case Study’, when I attended the EULETA Conference in Split in 2018. 

Farida explained that the show presents many inaccuracies of law-student life: 

  • students have lots of free time (unlikely for a law student – don’t I know it from my own experience!)
  • advocacy is taught within the criminal law module (highly unlikely – in England, we don’t study practical skills at undergraduate level)
  • students are involved in law clinics and give legal advice (only qualified lawyers are permitted to give legal advice)
  • law students get to speak to their teacher’s clients about cases (unlikely due to this breaching a lawyer’s duty of client confidentiality and client-attorney privilege)

In conclusion, this show does not accurately reflect the life of a student.  However, the language used in the series is pretty accurate and could be a useful tool in a legal English learner’s toolkit. 

TrIACLE: Making national immigration and asylum case law accessible to non-Italian web users

Authors: Katia Peruzzo, Federica Scarpa, University of Trieste (Italy)

This presentation presented the project TrIACLE (Translated Immigration & Asylum Case Law in Europe), a translation project conducted at the University of Trieste. The aim of TrIACLE  is to translate a selection of the most significant and recent Court of Cassation’s decisions related to asylum or subsidiary protection applications from Italian to English, to make them available to a wider audience. 

Katia and Federica explained how the project involves several stages:

  • pre-translation: translators identify problem passages in decisions and ask for guidance from lawyers
  • production: translators work autonomously and collectively to carry out the translations
  • post-production: translators conduct a peer review

The project uses a shared Google Drive to create a translation memory, to ensure consistency throughout. The project aims to keep the same register as the original decisions, but through the translation, it adapts the language to comply with plain English principles such as changing passive sentences to active, long sentences to short sentences, archaisms into everyday language. 

In the future, they hope to create a best practice guide for this type of project. 

Joint linguistic and NLP discourse structure modeling of legal texts for language pedagogy

Authors: Mary C. Lavissière, (University of Nantes-CRINI)
Alex Boulton (University of Lorraine-ATILF); Johannes Dahm (University of Nantes-CRINI); Laura Hartwell (Toulouse Capitole University – LAIRDIL);
Richard Dufour University of Nantes – LS2N), Nicolas Hernandez (University of Nantes – LS2N), Christine Jacquin (University of Nantes – LS2N), Laura Monceaux-Cachard (University of Nantes – LS2N) (France)

Mary is coordinating a research project defining ‘moves‘ in case law.  A move is ‘a discoursal or rhetorical unit that performs a communicative function in a written or spoken discourse’ (Swales).  Mary’s group found that second language learners have issues with legal terminology, not just the definitions, but also how to use them in the right context. She believes that linguistic tools can help students to understand usage, such as the tool ‘Sketch Engine’. Mary’s group are creating a corpus of legal documents called LingLexNumericorps to help with this issue. The project will create an open-access educational resource for students, teachers, translators and legal professionals.  I’m very much looking forward to the publication of this, and believe this could be a helpful resource. 

The impact of COVID-19 on the digitalisation of justice in the EU

Author: Kristina Gogic, independent researcher

Kristina spoke about the digitalisation of justice in the EU. She mentioned that the EU has proposed regulations to speed up access to justice through the use of IT systems and promoting the use of videoconferencing, for example, witnesses appearing via video conference in cases. 

In December 2020 the Commission adopted a ‘Proposal for a Regulation on a computerised system for communication in cross-border civil and criminal proceedings (e-CODEX system)‘. The Proposal aims at the further development and maintenance of e-CODEX and transferring the management to eu-LISA. e-CODEX stands for e-Justice Communication via Online Data Exchange, it provides digital infrastructure for the exchange of cross-border legal information. eu-LISA is The European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.

Kristina highlighted that while there are many benefits to online proceedings, the disadvantages can’t be ignored, such as the potential human rights violations, e.g. Article 6 (Right to a fair trial). 

For further information about these changes see here

FRIDAY – 17/12/2021

Get peace of mind with do-it-yourself living wills: the digitalisation and commodification of legal practice

Authors: Michela Giordano, University of Cagliari (Italy)

 Michela presented her study of how legal services are being transformed by automated options available online. She studied an automated living wills site here and a medical powers of attorney site here.  Living wills are documents which detail a person’s wishes regarding their future medical treatment. Medical powers of attorney give a person the power to make decisions on someone’s behalf regarding their medical treatment.

Michela noted that for these consumer documents, plain English is used and the pages are set out in a very clear manner, often with 3 columns: a floating menu on the left, the main content in the middle column, explanations on the right. 

How (un)readable are the European and UNESCO Cultural Conventions in the digital era?

Author: Patrizia Giampieri, Università degli Studi di Camerino (Italy)

Patrizia presented her analysis of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions and the Operational Guidelines on the Implementation of the Convention in the Digital Environment. Patrizia argued that these documents should be readable for laypeople and she questioned whether they indeed are.  Her study showed that the texts contain:

  • cataphora and anaphora e.g. herebefore, hereinunder
  • nominalisations e.g. make the agreement instead of agree 
  • a lack of punctuation
  • long sentences

Therefore, these documents do not comply with the principles of plain English and are difficult to read for the law person. Patrizia suggested language to use which could improve these documensts. 

Clarity in Italian court proceedings: the ClearAct database 

Author: Jacqueline Visconti, Genoa University (Italy)/ Birmingham University (UK)

Jacqueline, professor at Genoa University and author of the Handbook of Communication in the Legal Sphere, presented 2 projects she is co-working on, which focus on improving the language of court proceedings in Italy to give citizens better access to justice and improve court efficiency. The first project involves a group of experts appointed by the Italian Minister of Justice with the aim of improving clarity and concision in Italian court proceedings.  The second project, the ClearAct PRIN, was funded in 2018 by the Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca to create a new resource for clear and effective writing of court proceedings.

The ClearAct project aims to create a database of counsel documents, submitted for proceedings before the Italian Supreme Court, local Courts, and Courts of appeal.  This will be the first database of its kind in Italy and is challenging due to the fact that these documents are normally confidential. However, a database such as this could be an important step in making court language clearer because counsel documents are often used as the basis for writing judgments. Therefore, if the group can identify best practices in counsel documents, and deliver training on this, then this should have a knock-on effect impacting the language used in the written documents of judges.  

PLENARY LECTURE 2: The Internet as a game changer in legal communication: Arbitration on the move.

Authors: Dieter Stein, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf (Germany); Daniel Greineder, Peter & Kim (Switzerland)

Dieter Stein, a founding member of ILLA, presented during the first part of this plenary lecture. He spoke about how the language of the law has been affected by media, whether digital language is closer to written or spoken language., and whether digitalisation creates new genres of language. 

This was followed by a talk by Daniel Greineder, an English-qualified barrister with experience representing parties in commercial ad-hoc and institutional arbitration. Arbitration is an area I am particularly interested in and therefore I was particularly engaged by what Daniel said. He mentioned that arbitration institutions are under pressure, because they are in competition with each other, to publish their awards, as a form of advertising their institution and services. The awards which are published digitally on databases such as this one, could potentially jeopardise a key principle of commercial arbitration, which is that it’s private and confidential. 

Daniel argued that the publication of awards could create a soft form of precedent. Although Daniel did mention that these awards are not currently being applied as binding precedents in arbitration or court proceedings. He mentioned that as arbitrators will know that their judgments will be published, they may be tempted to use these published awards as a form of self-marketing, e.g. to become known as ‘the arbitrator who always gives a pro-Russian stance‘, and therefore their awards will be impacted.  He did confirm that, although safeguards exist to ensure arbitrators’ independence, in reality, there may be instances where this could be jeopardised. 

Daniel mentioned that there is a growing reliance on written documents in arbitration, which detracts from the power of oral advocacy, a huge tradition in common law jurisdictions.  He mentioned that in videoconference hearings, the arbitrators often read automatically generated transcripts of the speakers, rather than listening to the words, as though watching a film with subtitles, or like a German lesedrama – a play written to be read rather than staged. 

Other talks which I did not attend were presented by: 

Francesca Seracini (online)

Hanjo Hamann (online)

Clara Chan (online)

Elaine Yi Lin (online)

John O’Shea and Juliette Scott (online)

Gianluca Pontrandolfo (online)

Tímea Kovács (online)

Lombardi Alessandra + Karin Lutterman (online)

Stephen Rifkind (online)

Helena Haapio and Anna Hurmerinta-Haanpää (online)

Sotiria Skytioti (online)

Martina Bajcic + Martina Ticic (online)