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I occasionally see lawyers refer to something somebody else said or wrote, and they often insert, parenthetically, the words 'in terms'. Here is an example to motivate the question. Imagine there is a written report that makes a series of recommendations. A lawyer might say something like:

"The report says, in terms, that procedures must be improved at once."

What I am trying to understand is: what does the addition of 'in terms', as a parenthetical, accomplish? Put another way, if the phrase were removed, what confusion or ambiguity would be introduced?

One would hope this would be easy to answer with a quick search on Google. But the words "in terms" are so common that it's frustratingly hard. The interesting thing as a layperson is that I could imagine two quite different, and contradictory, meanings.

For example, does the insertion of 'in terms' mean "what follows is a paraphrasing"? As in:

"The report said words to the effect that procedures should be tightened"?

Or might it mean the opposite: "what follows is a verbatim quote"? As in:

"The report said, precisely and specifically, that procedures should be tightened"?

Finally: note that I'm asking here about the specific case of 'in terms' being used as a parenthetical. I'm not talking about sentences where it appears as 'in terms of' or 'in terms that'.

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    I've not heard a lawyer use that phrase in that way before in the U.S., I wonder if it is regional dialect usage.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 19, 2022 at 21:50

1 Answer 1

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The report said clearly and directly that procedures must be improved at once, but may not have used the exact words "procedures must be improved at once". In a legal context, the precise words used by someone can be important, and legal writers may be in the habit of being careful about that detail even in contexts where it is not vital. Often, the writer is trying to summarize a text that is on point, but inconvenient or unnecessary to quote exactly.

In R v Brown [1993] UKHL 19, Lord Slynn said, on the topic of consent and BDSM:

I agree that in the end it is a matter of policy. It is a matter of policy in an area where social and moral factors are extremely important and where attitudes can change. In my opinion it is a matter of policy for the legislature to decide.

Then, the Law Commission report of 1994 on that concept was able to say:

Lord Slynn of Hadley said in terms that the ultimate issue was one of policy.

While he did not use the precise words "the ultimate issue is one of policy", he said emphatically that this was a policy issue.

Similarly, from In re E (a Child) [2008] UKHL 66, Lord Carswell at paragraph 47 said:

The submission advanced by Mr Macdonald QC for the first intervener NIHRC went equally far. He argued in terms that the positive obligation under article 3 was absolute in its nature and that no element of proportionality entered into consideration.

He goes on to quote a paragraph from Barry Macdonald's written submission, which does not use the words "obligation", "absolute", or "proportionality", but still makes the stated argument in explicit and forceful language:

Likewise, the concept of balance is not in play in that the needs of the community cannot be weighed against the right of an individual not to be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment reaching the threshold. To express the standard of the state’s responsibility in terms of ‘reasonableness’ therefore fails to reflect the categorical imperative created by Article 3. Considerations of reasonableness may operate in deciding whether a proposed measure is available or likely to be effective to stop the ill-treatment in question but not otherwise. In circumstances where the state has it within its power to prevent or stop inhuman or degrading treatment, it must take the measures necessary to do so. The only room for discretion is in determining the most effective means of achieving the object of preventing the ill-treatment. There is no room for opting not to prevent it.

We also often have negative phrases like "the statute does not say in terms that..." or "the witness did not concede in terms that...". These mean that whatever was said, was not said in an express and obvious way (but perhaps there is still something that can be concluded by implication).

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    Basically, it's shorthand for "I'm paraphrasing this"? Or is it a more specific usage than a paraphrase?
    – Bobson
    Aug 19, 2022 at 21:43
  • I'd think of it as short for something like "in clear terms"
    – GIgen
    Aug 20, 2022 at 19:00

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