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Law and literacy: plain language partners.

Poor communication is a leading cause of complaints and claims against lawyers. A project of the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association is tackling this problem. Lawyers for Literacy aims to improve lawyers' knowledge of their clients' communication needs so they can strive to meet those needs.

The project has two aims: to increase awareness of the literacy issue as it affects the practice of law and to increase access to legal services for those with low literacy. Workshops held in BC law firms last summer emphasized two points: every law firm can benefit from improving communication skills, and plain language in legal documents is appreciated by all clients.

Lawyers for Literacy follows upon two task forces of the Canadian Bar Association that recommended lawyers use plain language for the sake of clients who are not adept at deciphering legalese. The Task Force on Legal Literacy's report, Reading the Legal World, recommended both training in listening and plain language writing among steps the legal community can take to improve access to justice. The Task Force on Plain Language had earlier advocated plain language as a tool for improving the delivery of legal services.

In 1996, the International Adult Literacy Survey exposed the depth of the literacy problem in Canada and six other countries: the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. Literacy is defined as the capability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential. Literacy is also a variable skill -- it has to be practiced to be maintained. And, literacy varies over a lifetime and according to stress levels and psychological states.

The study tested literacy in three domains to which plain language techniques can be applied:

* prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from texts such as editorials, news stories, poems and fiction

* document literacy: the ability to locate and use information found in job applications, payroll forms, graphics, transportation schedules, maps and tables

* quantitative literacy: the ability to use arithmetic skills to perform tasks such as balancing a chequebook, figuring out a tip, or completing an order form. Skills were measured at five functional levels, with 23% of adult Canadians at the highest levels 4 and 5 for prose literacy. Yet, 35% of adult Canadians whose first language is English are at level 3 -- considered the minimum acceptable prose skill level for Canadians. People reading at level 3 can manage with day-to-day tasks, but will be illprepared for technological advances and for dealing with complex information -- like that in legal documents.

The report on legal literacy recognized that those with average reading skill are not prepared to deal with the legal environment and its cumbersome procedures, with vague or abstract legal concepts, or with special legal terminology. To meet the needs of level 3 readers, information must be clear and unequivocal -- in plain language.

At level 1, 13% of Canadian adults with English as their first language can't read or have serious problems dealing with any written material. Some 24% of Canadian adults whose first language is English are at level 2 -- they can only deal with material that is simple and clearly laid out. They read, but not well enough to mine texts for information that require them to draw inferences. Plain language design and organizing principles are crucial for these readers.

The Task Force on Legal Literacy found that 73% of lawyers had experience with a client with a literacy problem and yet the legal and justice communities have not come to grips with this problem. The legal community must adapt its practices and procedures to meet the needs of clients for simple, clear, well-designed legal information. There will be a constant need to balance the complexity of the law against the communication needs of the public. Using plain language is a good start.

For more information on the literacy issue, visit

To see the Communication Clearly Kit prepared by Lawyers for Literacy, visit or

Plain Language Partners Ltd. is a consulting firm operating in Calgary and Vancouver.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Aug 1, 1997
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