I recently spoke with three people passionate about a critical but often overlooked and vastly underappreciated access-to-justice issue: plain language.

The plain language concept – converting legalese into common word use – reminds me of the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid and straightforward. The KISS principle asserts that designs and systems should be as simple as possible. 

Documents free from legal jargon, technical terms and unnecessary complexity are both more easily understood by self-represented litigants and easier for lawyers to explain to their clients.

National Center for State Courts Interactive Plain Language Glossary

When researching the issue, I wondered why shifting from legalese to a comprehensible common language was such a challenge. Like so much in the justice space, the answer isn’t so clear and certainly a larger challenge to address than I’d expected.

While a plain language approach in government docs, legislation and the courts has had broad support from lawmakers and the public, making the shift requires a coordinated effort and, importantly, agreement on a style guide. 

In my most recent Talk Justice podcast conversation, I learned more about international standards under development and how legal technology advances are creating opportunities and imperatives for plain language shifts. 

I spoke with Cheryl Stephens, who in 1993 helped found the Plain Language Association International; Claudia Johnson, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and program manager at LawHelp Interactive; and Maria Mindlin, a readability & plain language specialist with the language translation agency Transcend. 

Each brought a unique perspective to the conversation and decades of experience working with courts, justice systems and legal information portals aimed at improving access to justice with forms, legal documents and instructions in plain language in English and non-English languages.

Of the many resources we discussed, I’m highlighting a few below.