Viewing PLEI as a tiered system

February 22, 2007

In the old Justice Canada International Review of Public Legal Education and Information (1986) [not available online], authors Jayewardene and Pelpola suggest that there are three possible “systems” of public legal education:

  • An “operational” system, where law is written in technical language but instruments of law like contracts and court forms must be written in plain and communicative ways.
  • A “two-tier” system, where law is in legalese but the public and private sector produce educational and informational materials to explain the law to the general public.
  • A “one-tier” system, where the law is written in plain language and easily accessed by everyone.

The authors say that the United States already has an operational system, because of its many “plain language” laws that require things like insurance policies and consumer contracts to be in simple language. But won’t that approach will leave out whole swaths of law—like civil rights—that won’t come up in the legal papers most people encounter? And wouldn’t it limit the preventive potential of PLE and fail unless people actually read legal documents?

What we really have in the U.S. and Canada, I think, is a two-tier system, with intricate and dully written law explained by a host of PLE providers, including the government itself, nonprofits, bar associations, and for-profit outfits. If you believe that jargon and specialized vocabularies can produce precision, then the two-tier approach gains you some advantages: the law itself can remain uncorrupted by the ambiguities of common talk. The PLE providers in this system, like the lawyers in it also, are really just bilingual interpreters operating to communicate between the law and the people.

What about a one-tier system? Governments across the world are moving in this direction, as the Scottish review of plain language approaches linked here indicates. Sweden, which seems to be leading the way, has made a commitment to strive for plain language from the very top—legislation—down. As a Swedish official explained in a speech linked here, all bills must be edited for “the greatest possible simplicity and clarity in the language used” and approved by a special plain language division in the Ministry of Justice. This process, the official says, “emanates from the idea that laws must be clear and user-friendly, because these texts have an impact on decision-making at all levels of society.”

The major disadvantage to a one-tier system that I can think of, besides the additional cost to pay language experts to edit legislation for clarity, is the likely reduced funding for non-government PLE. If the government is already writing law in plain language, it will say, why does it need to fund other entities to explain it? But independent PLE is important for at least two reasons: (1) it can highlight laws and legal opportunities that the government might not want to, and (2) it can explain the law with a bias—in a way that can help people advocate for themselves and their communities.

Maybe, then, a two-tier system working from a plain-language-committed top tier is ideal. What should we call that?

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