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New developments in plain language in state courts

June 2, 2021

Plain language is one of many approaches that courts can use to increase access to justice and increase public trust.  Several recent publications and innovations show how courts can, and have, moved towards adding clarity for the non-legally trained since the last time Trending Topics looked at this in December 2020.

NCSC's Tiny Chat series, which had previously looked at Clear Communications, dedicated an episode to the topic of Plain Language in particular featuring Rochelle Klempner, Chief Counsel for their Access to Justice Program. They reviewed ways in which courts can write in a style and manner and ways to "translate" existing legalese into something that court users can understand.

In addition to work being done in New York, Michigan has made efforts in the last 6 months in the area of plain language and access to justice. The Michigan Bar Journal published two several articles directed both to judges and court staff on the need for plain language. February 2021's Access to Justice Requires Plain Language written by Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack argues that "[The justice system] is not fair when litigants cannot understand it" and that plain language is the foundation for all issues related to access to justice issues. Legal Self-Reliance: Empowering Consumers Through Plain Language (April 2021) followed up on the theme introduced by Chief Justice McCormack and placed "plain language" in the context of not just text, but on new and newer technologies that were brought to the forefront due to the pandemic. One suggestion: the creation of official standards, definitions, and qualifications for what is "plain legal language" and who is a "plain legal language" provider or specialist.

Around this time of the release of these articles, the Michigan Supreme Court announced a new Michigan Parenting Time Guide written by the state's Friend of the Court Bureau. In announcing the new Guide, the Michigan Supreme Court said that it  "includes increased accessibility, such as the use of plain language, visual representations of schedules and concepts, and acknowledgment that every family and every child has unique circumstances and needs."

Finally, the Massachusetts Superior Court announced the online publication of an official, plain language Superior Court Model Jury Instructions this spring. These model instructions were created by a committee of judges with the assistance of linguistics experts to improve the instruction of jurors. According to the Model Jury Instructions, judges still have the discretion to adapt them to each situation and are also encouraged to create new instructions.

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