Plain Language Forms Make a Difference


The California Courts have been changing some of their standard forms to make them more readable. Now there is a report of the first study of the readability of court forms, and it concludes that the changes did make a difference — a big one. Maria Mindlin, Is Plain Language Better? Comparative Readability Study of Plain Language Forms (undated pdf); a version of the article is in 10 Scribes J. Legal Writing 55-65 (2005-2006).

The researchers used 60 members of a jury pool in Sacramento County. Thirty were tested on a recent version of a subpoena duces tecum form and a “treated” (plain language) version of a form for proof of service of process in a harassment case. The other thirty were tested on the former service of process form and the treated subpoena duces tecum form (renamed “Court Order: Go to Court/Provide Documents”). 

The people in the study were asked questions about the forms, such as “What do you think this document is for?” and “What does this form tell you to do, exactly?” The percentages answering correctly were strikingly lopsided. Most people were baffled by the old forms and could understand and follow the directions in the new forms.

This, of course, is good news for the ordinary people who have to use the forms.

It is also good news for the courts, because compliance with the forms will be much higher. And interesting side benefit: “The Administrative Office of the Courts experienced a 43% reduction in translation fees (which are billed on a per word basis) when they transitioned the Domestic Violence forms to plain language.” (p. 5 n.11)

In the short term, attorneys and other people experienced with the old forms will find the new forms less readable. They are used to “subpoena duces tecum” and will have to adjust to “Court Order: Go to Court/Provide Documents.” The good news for them is that they are skilled readers and will be able to become familiar with the new forms.

 Proof of Service.GIF

 Excerpt from new proof of service form, from California Admin. Ofc. of the Courts forms page.

1 Comment

  1. shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » plain english: will cops follow courts?

    November 14, 2006 @ 12:21 pm


    […] It’s no secret that shlep advocates the spread of Plain English into the nooks and crannies of our society where jargon and in-group, specialized speech hamper communication with other groups (or even intra-group). (see, e.g., Mary on Plain Language forms, and myself on pro se nomenclature).   Pro se practitioners and advocates who agree may find the LL posting and WP article helpful in demonstrating the need for plain, standardized language and understanding the resistance among jargonistas when asked to change in response to linguistic “corpus planning“.    […]

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