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Opening remarks

Speaking Plainly: Plain Language Law for Non-Lawyers, 12th September 2002

Return to Speaking Plainly seminar program

Laurie Glanfield, Director General, NSW Attorney General’s Department

(delivered by Steve Mark, the Legal Services Commissioner)

Welcome Ladies and Gentleman.

Most people who come into contact with the justice system in New South Wales deal with a Local Court.  Many of them have no previous experience of the justice system, let alone legal skills.

Imagine then the teenager - appearing on a very minor charge - who hears he has been “convicted and fined with recogs of two years”. Or the woman, applying for the protection of an Apprehended Violence Order, who hears the magistrate say simply that the “statutory orders” are to be made. They may both leave the court wondering precisely what just happened.

And then think of a man who cannot pay his debts, hearing the magistrate give a “writ of execution”.  To the uninitiated, it sounds like a death sentence.

The courts are working to remove these examples of jargon, because there is a serious principle at stake here. The law gives us rights, as well as responsibilities.  But if a person cannot understand the language of the law, then he or she effectively has no rights, and cannot take any responsibility. That is why seminars like this one are so important.

I recently read about a British woman by the name of Chrissie Maher.  She is the founder of an independent lobby group, called the Plain English campaign, which has been fighting for plain language communication from British government and business since the early 1980s. There has been much progress, but she’s still fighting, by the way. 

She started her campaign after hearing the story of two elderly women, who had died in appalling circumstances, living in sub-standard housing.  They had died there because they could not understand documents they had received about their entitlement to housing assistance.

The documents were written in what I call “bureaucratese” - which is closely related to “legalese” - and its cousin, “gobbledy-gook”. These are forms of the English language which have meaning only to a closed circle of the initiated.  Sometimes it seems their sole purpose is to exclude and confuse others. 

The point of the story is - the way an organisation chooses to communicate with its clients can have a very significant impact on people’s lives.

When it comes to the law, I have heard many arguments against the use of plain language:

  • “The language of the law cannot be reduced to the level of the tabloid press”;
  • “The law is complex, and requires precision”; and
  • “It is not possible to draft legislation which every person can understand”.

But apart from the most complex areas of law, it is possible to explain our rights and responsibilities in plain language - whether in the court room, in contracts, or in correspondence.

I do concede that plain language in the law takes a little more effort up-front.  It requires care to write for an audience who is unfamiliar with your subject matter.  It takes time to communicate clearly on complex issues. 

But the benefits in the long-run far outweigh any initial cost.  They include greater compliance - and less queries, complaints and litigation.

I have been asked to give some examples of our experience of introducing plain language communication in the New South Wales Attorney General’s Department.

We operate a free information service, called “LawAccess”, in collaboration with legal professional and community groups.  It provides a single point of access - via the telephone or Internet - to legal assistance in New South Wales. The service has put a great deal of effort into communicating in plain language.  In fact, it has made that commitment in its Customer Service Charter.

All its Customer Service Officers are trained to avoid using legal terminology, to give explanations in plain language and to verify that the client has understood, by seeking feedback. On the LawAccess web site, there are over fifteen hundred “Fact Sheets” about common legal problems, as well as dozens of recorded-voice Law Talks.  All have been checked for plain language, and many are also available in languages other than English.  They are accessible 24 hours a day.

We have also learnt that effective communication is about knowing our audience and being prepared to modify our methods of reaching them. Many of our publications have been developed with specific groups in mind - young people, indigenous people and people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

In our courts and tribunals, we have a policy called “Flexible Service Delivery”, which aims to improve service to people with disabilities.  Staff are trained to recognise that clients have varied needs, and to adapt their approach to communication, wherever practical.  This can be as simple as obtaining a large-print version of a document for a person with a visual impairment.

Court procedures are also being made more intelligible to the general community.  We recently reviewed the Justices Act, which was written in antiquated legal language in 1902. The Act sets out procedures for about one third of all the cases which come before the Local Court.

We have simplified the Court’s processes from start to finish.  The confusing array of terms and technical rules have been replaced by procedures and language which are clear and readily understandable.

Interestingly enough, we have found that, before we can truly adopt plain language, we need to simplify our work processes first.  When trying to find a way to explain a complex procedure in simple terms, we have often ended up questioning the need for such a complex procedure in the first place.  Simplify the way we work, and the plain language follows.

For example, the Local Court documents known as “Charges”, “Informations”, “Complaints” and “Summonses” have been abolished and replaced with one concept, called a “Court Attendance Notice”, a term which is self-explanatory to everybody. Such changes not only improve the efficiency of the Local Courts, but save users of the Court - the general community - a great deal of time and unnecessary confusion.

These are just a few examples of how plain language makes our work easier, at the same time as better serving our clients.

I can sum up our experience by saying we’ve found there are four essential ingredients to plain language communication.

Firstly, we need to start with a strong commitment by management.  Managers need to make clear they do not want legalese and gobbledy-gook in the workplace.  Staff often think they are expected to write in a very formal, technical or verbose style.  I ask my managers to reject that style when they see it. Making a public commitment to plain language, such as the customer charter used by LawAccess, is a good starting point.

We need skilled staff.  Communicating complex issues in plain language is a skill.  To most of us, it doesn’t come naturally, so we need to learn it.

We need empathy with our audience.  We need to start any communication by trying to understand our audience and wanting them to understand and act on our message.  Anything less means we are talking but not necessarily communicating.

And finally we need constant vigilance.  Human nature means we all have a natural tendency to use jargon, so that the struggle for plain language never really ends.

To illustrate this, I heard recently about an excellent crime prevention initiative in the United Kingdom. 

It was described as “a multi-agency project, catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people, for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit”. You are probably wondering what that really means.  Most of us would simply call it a “youth club”.

As I said - it takes constant vigilance against gobbledy-gook.

And a final piece of advice I give to my staff is - to test any public communication on the intended audience before releasing it. Sometimes instructions - which are so obvious to the author - can be totally miscontrued by an unfamiliar reader, with unintended results.

During the November 2000 Presidential Election in the United States, the world witnessed perhaps one of the most bizarre periods of uncertainty in the history of modern democracy. The election of the new President hung on the result in the State of Florida, which in turn depended on just a few hundred disputed ballot papers in the county of Palm Beach. We all remember the farce which ensued, as electoral scrutineers spent weeks re-counting and trying to second-guess voters’ intentions.

But we should never forget the cause of that chaos.  The designer of the new ballot paper in Palm Beach county did not think to test it on members of the public first.

It costs little to test our communication beforehand, but the consequences can be dramatic, if we don’t.

Thank you and enjoy today’s seminar.