Clarity all year round
This time last year Anglia Research gained the right to display the Plain English Campaign’s Internet Crystal Mark on our website. In this article, Carolyn Lord discusses the importance of plain English for everyone working in the legal and allied professions, and looks at the practical steps you can take to improve the documents you send to your clients.
When the Legal Services Board issued its report on Lowering barriers to accessing services earlier this year, it focused on three non-financial barriers to access, amongst them: “inaccessible language and communications”.
The report noted that:
inaccessible language and the perception of it can prevent consumers from accessing services. Moreover, the impact appears to be greater on certain demographics and particularly on vulnerable consumers. It follows that wider use of plain, non-technical language would help to address a proven barrier to consumers accessing legal services.
It went on to suggest that:
there could be significant value in the development and promulgation of language guides or toolkits for legal services providers. The purpose could be to develop sector-wide understanding of common words and phrases which should be avoided, replaced or explained, as well as words and means of explaining services which are accessible. The durability and impact of such work would be maximised if it was based on consumer testing or research.
This is not such an uncontroversial recommendation as you might think and I appreciate why many of my colleagues in the legal profession view this as more red tape in disguise – and perhaps have a laugh at the language of the report itself.
However, as a solicitor, I also appreciate how easy it is for the legal profession to become cocooned in its own jargon We work with the vocabulary that we learnt in law school and as a shorthand between lawyers it can be really helpful. But if we assimilate the writing style that we’re exposed to every day, what we write may baffle our clients.
Plain English toolkits aside, I think there’s a strong case to be made for working to simplify and clarify our written communication document by document, template by template and step by step.
At Anglia Research, we decided that having achieved the internet crystal mark for our website, our next step would be to redraft our client-facing documents in plain English. As a significant number of these documents are based on our website content, there was no urgent need to upgrade them. It made more sense to start with one of our most difficult documents.
Earlier this year, we achieved the crystal mark for a technical client information sheet on specialist indemnity insurance products. This touches on several aspects of probate law, such as court directions orders and Section 27 of the Trustee Act 1925.
I’m not going to pretend that the process was painless, but it’s done: we now have a detailed introduction to indemnity insurance that is both true to the facts and easy to understand.
What’s more, simplifying vocabulary and re-organising material so that it’s easy to follow, forces you to drill down to the facts underlying the information you are presenting. Inevitably, the experience of clarifying the message that you’re trying to give clients increases the clarity of your own thoughts. It’s win-win.
On the one hand, being absolutely clear about what we’re saying makes us better lawyers. On the other hand, when clients see you making the effort to come out of your jargon cloud and communicate in a straightforward manner, they are not likely to walk away from what you are offering.
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