In no other type of texts are precision and punctuation as important as they are in legal documents. One wrong letter or figure or the lack of a comma or a full stop will have consequences, so carefully reviewing a document before its execution is of utmost importance to avoid unwanted surprises.
Sworn translation is needed when documents are to take effect abroad. Sworn translators are not allowed to omit, add, modify or correct any information, not even mistakes. Therefore, any typos, mistakes or illegible information in the original document will be transferred as such to the translation.
In this article, I am sharing a succession case to illustrate the importance of punctuation in legal texts.
The case in question is Re Gage , where a will contained the following gifts:
“I give and bequest to my niece Eleanor R. the sum of £1,150 5% War Loan 1929/47 stock And to Marian G. the sum of £500 New South Wales 5% stock now standing in my name.”
Have a look at the words in red. The word “And” is capitalised and not preceded by a full stop. It could be argued that this was simply a typo and that the word “and” should be in small letters. If that was the case, the expression “now standing in my name” would be referring to both gifts (the sum of £1,150 5% War Loan 1929/47 stock to Eleanor and the sum of £500 New South Wales 5% stock to Marian).
However, the expression “now standing in my name” was held by the judge to refer only to the gift of the £500 New South Wales stock and not to the War Loan. This was justified by pointing to the capital letter “A” in “And”, which emphasises the separateness of the two legacies, even though there is no full stop before it.
What does that mean?
Let’s have a look at the context:
When the testator made his will, he had exactly £1,150 5% War Loan 1929/47 stock and £500 New South Wales 5% stock. He sold the War Loan before he died, so, at death, he held no War Loan at all. The question in this case was whether the gift of the War Loan was specific and therefore adeemed by the cash payment. (Ademption occurs when a specific legacy or devise fails because its subject matter is no longer part of the testator’s property at the time of his death).
What the court held
The court held that the fact that the testator held the exact amount when making the will did not, by itself, make the gift specific, but “now standing in my name” suggested a specific nature. The word “and” separates both gifts and therefore the gift to the niece (Eleanor R.) was not affected by the expression “now standing in my name”. The gift was held to be general (ademption only applies to specific legacies or devises, not to general legacies or devises). The effect of this was that the testator’s personal representatives were directed to buy stock for the niece.
What would happen if “And” was written in small letters?
If “And” was written in small letters, the expression “now standing in my name” would be referring to both gifts, making both gifts specific. That would make the gift to the niece fail by ademption (as the testator had sold the War Loan before his death) and the niece would not receive the gift.
As you can see here, punctuation can change the way a clause is construed and its legal effects, permitting a beneficiary to receive under a will or preventing him from receiving, for example.
H. Parry and R. Kerridge. The Law of Succession, 13th edn., London, 2016, p. 252.
Did you like this article about the importance of punctuation in legal texts?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
IRENE CORCHADO RESMELLA is a Spanish translator based in Edinburgh. A Chartered Linguist and member of the CIOL, she is also an English-Spanish sworn translator appointed by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Irene specialises in sworn and legal translation (particularly in wills and succession) and is an Affiliate member of STEP. ICR Translations is registered with the Information Commissioner's Office and has professional indemnity insurance.