New Zealand Law Society - Crystal clear: How using plain language can improve access to justice

Crystal clear: How using plain language can improve access to justice

From the grass roots to the board room, writing clearly benefits everyone. The art of short and sweet just might save the world – and time and money while doing so.

“Our mission in the world is to create laws that are accessible, fit for purpose, and constitutionally sound. Plain language is critical to all of those things”, says the Chief Parliamentary Counsel, Cassie Nicholson from the Parliamentary Counsel Office.

The Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) drafts New Zealand’s laws – and they want to ensure users understand them. If people don’t understand what the law is saying, it’s not that effective.

Cassie Nicholson

Winners of Best Plain English Legal Document at the Plain English Awards in 2017, the PCO has embedded clear writing and communications in everything they do. Working together with Write Limited, they created a plain language standard, and have since developed supporting documents and made it part of the peer review process for drafting legislation. It has meant a culture and mindset shift for the government agency, and now they have champions across the organisation.

“We also try to make it fun. We have competitions and often have an article in our office newsletter. We just try to make it a feature and a regular reminder for people and what plain language means for their work”, Cassie says.

Cutting to the chase

Since embarking on the plain English journey, the Parliamentary Counsel Office has done a couple of internal audits to see how they’re tracking along. Cassie Nicholson emphasises that they still have areas to work on, so it’s all about continuous improvement.

One of the constant challenges is the tension between what precise legal writing requires versus the best plain language solution. Time is another challenge – working with complex topics, it’s easier to write clearly if you have the time to do so.

Finding the right words and structure requires time and headspace. On the other hand, getting it right can save time in the long run and result in fewer enquiries and less confusion.

On a journey of continuous improvement, peer review has proven to be helpful.

“You slip into bad habits. It’s useful to have people say to you that just cut to the chase, or this is another way of structuring it. I find it really helpful to always have another person read your work and understand it from an external user’s perspective – and not just from what you thought you were saying in your head”, Cassie says.

Comic contracts – legally binding and easy to understand

Understanding what complex documents say can be challenging even for anyone with a university degree, let alone for people with low literacy, a disability, or English as a second language. This can quickly become an issue for access to justice.

One example comes from the European Union. The EU law requires that member states provide anyone who has been arrested or detained with a written document that explains their rights in simple and accessible language. However, the quality of information provided varies.

Penny de Borst

In some countries, the letters consist of excerpts taken from complicated national laws. People who have been arrested often don’t read these documents or they struggle to understand them. As a result, they may not know their rights or how to exercise them.

“The concept of access to justice is being looked at across the world”, says Lynda Harris, the Chief Executive of Write Limited, the company that champions plain language and helps organisations write clearly.

“One of the most interesting concepts that we have yet to adopt in New Zealand is the idea of comic contracts. These are contracts that are entirely created as a comic strip. The idea is to give people who are illiterate independent means to understand something that is really relevant to them”, she explains.

The concept of these visual contracts was developed by Robert de Rooy, a commercial attorney in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2013, he started developing contracts that everyone could understand. In 2016, together with Jincom EHS, a communications company that specialises in illustrating health and safety guidelines, they developed the world’s first comic contract.

The award-winning comic contracts are legally binding: the parties are represented by characters, terms of the agreement are captured in comics and the parties sign the comic as their contracts.

Empowering people at the grass roots

At the grass roots in New Zealand, Community Law Centres provide free legal help across Aotearoa. They offer online resources and one-on-one legal help for people who don’t have much money or are in vulnerable situations.

One of the online resources is the Community Law Manual, which covers topics ranging from family law, health and disability, criminal and traffic law to immigration and refugees. It also covers jobs, benefits and flats, individual rights and freedoms – all in plain English.

Nobody has ever complained that something was too easy to understand

The publications team from the Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley Centre know the importance of accessible and readable information.

“Part of providing legal information in plain English is giving people the tools to make informed decisions”, says Tina Walker-Ferguson, Kaihautū Tānga / Publications Director.

“When I’m editing, the hat I’m wearing is the plain English hat: does this make sense, is my whānau going to understand this?”, she continues.

Popular topics that people want information on are housing, accessing benefits or just knowing what your rights are when your car has been towed.

The publications team also encourage lawyers or firms to get in touch with them if they would like to sponsor a plain English Manual for a certain organisation – or the team at the Community Law Centre can choose it for them.

From sponsoring marae, women’s refuges, refugee and migrant support services, the 2021 sponsors have put their power behind the kaupapa. That means working towards a world where communities have better access to the legal system and a clearer understanding of their rights.

“It’s a really important way of ensuring access to justice. It means providing tools written in plain English, a comprehensive set of information for frontline community organisations.”

Why businesses should care – all writing has a cost

Plain language benefits everyone, not just the most vulnerable, reminds Penny de Borst, Head of Brand and Partnerships at Write Limited.

“I’ve been just trying to get a new insurance policy for a car. The advertising is all simple and clear but then you start diving deeper into it. All of a sudden, it gets very hard to untangle”, she says.

Even experts prefer plain language. With a constant stream of online information, emails, notifications and hours of screen time, people just want things to be presented clearly. According to the Nielsen Norman Group usability study with experts in science, technology, and medical fields, even highly educated readers prefer succinct information that is easy to scan.

“Nobody has ever complained that something was too easy to understand”, Penny reminds and laughs.

Then there’s also the time and money factor – all writing has a cost. Lynda Harris, the Chief Executive of Write Limited and the author of Rewrite – How to Overcome Daily Sabotage of Your Brand and Profit explains why organisations should take plain writing seriously.

“Every single person in an organisation who writes is being paid a salary and they may write efficiently or not. That writing might enhance the organisations reputation or not. If it works, there’s a good return on investment. Where it doesn’t work, is inefficient or works against the organisation, it comes with a cost.”

Whether it’s time, money or the world that needs to be saved – plain language just might be the key to it.

Tips for writing in plain language from the Write Plain Language Standard:

  1. The purpose of the document is clear at the start
  2. The content supports the purpose of the document
  3. The structure of the document is clear and logical to the reader
  4. The headings signal the key content
  5. The paragraphs are mostly short and focused on one topic
  6. The sentences are mostly short and straightforward
  7. The words are precise and familiar
  8. The tone supports the purpose of the document
  9. The layout and presentation help the reader absorb the message quickly and easily
  10. The document is error-free and consistent with your style guide

For more resources, including tips for legal writing check out

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