Is active or passive voice preferred for legal writing?

What is the difference between active & passive voice in legal writing and which is preferred?


When to Use Active or Passive Voice

When to use active or passive voice for legal writing is an age-old question and one that trips up paralegal students and attorneys alike. In 1978 Richard C. Wydick wrote an article called "Plain English for Lawyers" that addressed this issue head-on. He writes: "When you use the active voice, the subject of the sentence acts: "The union filed a compliant." When you use the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon: "A compliant was filed by the union." He describes two problems with passive voice: it takes more words and is unclear who is doing what. Examples from Wydick: 


Other Examples

Passive Voice                                                                        Active Voice 

Jenny was hit by the car                                                         The car hit Jenny

The ball was thrown by Mark                                                  Mark threw the ball

The Answer and Counterclaims were filed by the Defendant The Defendant filed the Answer and Counterclaims 

Why Use Active Voice

Passive voice does have its place, but active voice makes legal writing clearer, stronger, and more brief. Writing with the active voice is preferred for paralegal students and is a skill that must be learned and practiced before going out into the workplace. Hopefully these examples showed you why its better to use active voice and how to write in active voice.

For additional help, visit the School of Justice Studies Guide.

Wydick, R. C. (1978). Plain English for lawyers. California Law Review66(4), 727.

  • Last Updated May 18, 2021
  • Views 4687
  • Answered By Kerry Louvier

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