A recent news article referred to my years of work promoting plain legal language and legal literacy: http://www.lawyersweekly.ca/index.php?section=article&volume=31&number=26&article=3
Thinking about this, two things came to mind and I want to address them.
1. Plain Language vs Literacy
Twenty years ago many plain language proponents wanted to draw a bold line between the plain language and literacy issues. I think it was a defensive response to the accusations that we wanted to “dumb-down” legal writing and force lawyers to write to the “illiterate”.
In the Canadian Bar Association activities, we sometimes referred to “legal literacy” in an effort to point out that even the literate client lacked the legal context to understand much of legal writing. That is one way to deal with the barbs, but it still avoids the literacy issue.
2. Audience: a general public?
When the intended audience for a piece of legal information or for a consumer contract is the general public, literacy is an issue. Most plain language proponents would have said then that there is no “general public” since we do not have adequate information about their needs and abilities.
Twenty years ago, the first international literacy surveys were beginning to tell us quite a lot. We now know the literacy abilities of the working population versus the whole adult population. We know the differences in reading abilities between the native English speakers and others for whom English is not their first or preferred language.
Canada is one of the most literate countries, but we learned that about 17% Canadian of the public could only recognize words or phrases but not decipher sentences. About 26% could get meaning from sentences, but not well enough to decipher legalese. Another 35% has functional reading skills but cannot cope with legal jargon and does not have the context needed to truly grasp legal warnings, procedures, and instructions.
So, when we are dealing with the general public, especially in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic society, we need to be clear, straight-forward, and thorough in the information we convey and how we say it.
A plain language writer or editor who does not understand the literacy situation in their country, does not understand their public.