Spanish legalese is so wordy most Spaniards don’t understand it, study reveals

If you thought that not being a native Spanish speaker was preventing you from fully understanding official texts in Spain you’d be wrong, as a new study reveals that 78 percent of 'Spanish legalese' isn't clear to Spaniards either.

frustrated man on computer
Frustrated with Spanish legalese. Photo: ACWells/ Pixabay

If you live in Spain, you’ve no doubt developed quite a few headaches whilst squinting at your computer screen, re-reading 100-word long sentences on government websites, incapable of making head or tail of what it is they’re trying to say exactly.

It’s no secret that Spain loves bureaucracy, but when it comes to administrative texts, it almost seems as if the civil servants charged with writing them wished to convey that what’s being said is official and important by making any explanation overly wordy and complicated. Either that, or they’re deliberately trying to making it hard to understand.

And while it’s true that written Spanish does tend use more long-winded flowery language than English for example, it isn’t just a case of foreigners getting ‘lost in translation’.

A new study by Spanish consulting firm Prodigioso Volcán revealed that 78 percent of official texts are not clear and therefore are not well understood by the Spanish population. 

After analysing 760 administrative texts linked to ministries, regional governments, municipalities, state agencies and universities, they concluded that 78 percent of these official documents are not written in a way which is easy to understand.  

Of all of them, the most comprehensible are those related to gender-based violence, while the most complex are those that explain how to apply for a grant or scholarship (98 percent of these are not easy to understand). 

One of the most convoluted texts they found was the 22-page document on Social Security and Minimum Vital Income (Ingreso Mínimo Vital), which was written in such an overly formal and twisted language they estimated that an overwhelming majority of native Spanish speakers would be confused by it.  

Even those who write the texts agree they’re too complicated

As part of their investigation, Prodigioso Volcán also interviewed 20 experts whose job it is to write these texts. These professionals admitted that these texts were not actually aimed at everyday citizens, but at other administrative technicians instead. 

They acknowledged that many of these documents “use the passive voice, uncommon words, bad punctuation, spelling errors, too many words per sentence and an absence of connectors”.  

Spaniards are fighting back

Spanish citizens are beginning to fight back against this overly complicated language, demanding that it be written more clearly so that everyone can understand.  

Estrella Montolío, a professor of Spanish Language, is part of a group of activists calling for change, saying that everyone has the right to understand.  

As well as writing articles, texts, creating a podcast, and giving talks on the subject, she has also written a manifesto demanding clear and simple language in administrative texts, which has been sent to heads of different institutions and entities, including the Minister of Education, the President of Congress and to the president of the General Council of the Judiciary.

“We demand an administrative communication that is easier to understand (clearer), closer (less impersonal and less pompous) and friendlier (less hierarchical and threatening)”, part of the manifesto states. 

Marc Bayés, who has a PhD in Spanish Language and is a professor at the University of Barcelona has also been trying to combat the use of this type of overly flowery language and even dedicated his thesis to it.

He says that this lack of clarity carries many risks; for example, it can prevent a citizen from finding the information they need or complicate the management of a fundamental procedure.

There is “a large well of obscure texts which, at times, are directly opaque,” he said with regard, particularly to notifications from the Hacienda (Spanish tax authorities).  

“A clear text reduces inequality because there are many people who do not have a great ability in the language,” he continued.  

A petition has even been set up on calling for clear and simple language in administrative documents, which you can sign here

This isn’t the first time that Spanish citizens have been complaining about overly complicated language.

After a series of complaints, in 2009 Spain set up a Commission for the Modernisation of Legal Language, which issued a report that spoke of the need to turn towards simpler language and argued that improving clarity “strengthens the rule of law”.   

Member comments

  1. I was a lawyer in England and clients had exactly the same problem. In particular, Wills, I made them in plain simple English and Clients really appreciated it! The firm I worked for did not; destroyed aura of expertise, was their view. I asked a Partner to explain a clause he put in – he could not!

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‘Four months to get an appointment’: Huge delays at Spain’s Social Security

Endless waits for appointments, four million unanswered calls and a website that often doesn’t work. Tens of thousands of people in Spain are enduring huge bureaucratic delays when claiming welfare benefits from the Social Security system.

'Four months to get an appointment': Huge delays at Spain's Social Security

In the latest chapter of Spanish bureaucratic nightmares, the country’s Seguridad Social takes centre stage.

For several months now, there have been an increasing number of reports in local and national media that the country’s social security system is facing “collapse”.

But crucially it’s ordinary citizens who are experiencing most of the hardship, as the delays Spanish civil servants have blamed on a 25 percent drop in personnel have resulted in Spanish gatekeeping 2.0.

“This is a joke, I’ve been waiting for four months”, “Getting an appointment at the Seguridad Social is an absolute odyssey” or “I’m dying and they give me an appointment to claim my retirement in four months”, are some of the headlines in the Spanish press highlighting the public’s frustration.

This last headline is a quote from a man interviewed by La Sexta TV who has terminal cancer, has paid his taxes for 40 years but can’t get the help he needs to enjoy his pension for the time he has left.

Spain’s dreaded cita previa, the appointment system which means members of the public need to book their visit to Spanish social security offices ahead of time, has become mandatory for all purposes.

Even popping in to ask a quick question requires a cita previa as most Social Security (INSS) offices have effectively banned in-person customer service without a prior appointment. Try to enter the building without a cita and you will be turned away by a security guard.

Faced with this closed-doors policy, people turn to the INSS website, app or phone number that will allegedly get them that much-needed appointment.


On the website or app, they’ll more often than not get a message that says “no hay citas disponibles” (there are no available appointments), or if there are slots available, they’re months away.

Some benefits applications can be completed online, but the website is prone to crashing when there are too many users on the website, or if you’re missing specific software on your computer.

Navigating Spain’s convoluted public websites is a big ask even for those who are tech-savvy, but for elderly people without this knowledge it’s virtually impossible.

Instead they turn to something they understand better: calling the Social Security offices on the phone. But civil servants won’t pick up, or the line is dead or busy, no matter how many times they try.

According to Spain’s main trade union UGT, over the course of 2022, civil servants at Spain’s primary welfare institution failed to answer 3.9 million phone calls.

For budding pensioners, widows, people claiming disability benefits, new parents wanting to get their parental leave payments and many other taxpayers, it’s a catch-22 situation.

Dozens end up queuing outside the Social Security building early in the morning in the hope that they can be squeezed in first thing.

READ ALSO: ‘The queuing is ridiculous’: What Spanish bureaucracy is really like

Getting an appointment is so sought-after that internet cafés and dubious gestores (jack-of-all-trades agents) are charging people €10, €25, sometimes even higher figures for a cita, an illicit practice which is used for getting an appointment at other public administrations as well.

So what has caused this “collapse” at Spain’s Social Security?

Ricardo Aguirre, union representative and coordinator for the Social Security, has said that before the Covid-19 pandemic things worked “more or less well”, but problems reportedly arose with the implementation of Spain’s Minimum Vital Income.

This represented a jump of 2.5 million new welfare applications but not enough staff to meet such demands.

Aguirre also blames the bottleneck on the Seguridad Social’s ageing workforce, around 60 years on average and with many civil servants now going into retirement.

Data from Spain’s Ministry of Social Security confirms that one in three of their civil servants is older than 60 and 80 percent are over 50.

“All we’re asking for is more staff,” Aguirre concluded.

“People are going hungry because of the system,” he told Spanish radio station Cope.

Over the past two years, around 30 INSS offices have been closed and dozens more are in the process of doing so.

The Spanish government is reportedly rolling out a ‘Shock Plan’ that will result in 1,600 more civil servants being hired at the Seguridad Social, whilst stressing that since 2020 3,380 more funcionarios have been recruited.

On March 2nd, Spanish Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá tweeted that the Seguridad Social has “lost 25 percent of its workforce in the last decade” but that his department is “reversing that situation” and that “in the coming months, thousands of civil servants and temporary workers will be hired to improve customer service for the public”.

Whether this materialises and has the desired effect remains to be seen, as these new funcionarios first have to be trained, and the fact that many of them will only be temporarily hired means that the problems could soon return.

Regardless of these promises, it does not change the fact that Spain’s bureaucratic labyrinth is a scourge for Spanish society.

Spain’s cita previa appointment system, which became fully embedded during the days of strict Covid-19 restrictions, has been kept in place as a tool for most public administrations to offer their services to citizens at the pace that they see fit, which is usually slow.

Add to this the impossibility of booking appointments and completing other processes online on subpar websites that call into question the €70 billion in EU funds Spain is receiving for its “digital transformation”, and it’s fair to say that Spanish authorities are doing a disservice to the public.

READ ALSO: ‘Homologación’ – How Spain is ruining the careers of thousands of qualified foreigners