In legal documents it’s the job of print to deliver the message smoothly and then get out of the way as fast as possible. Lots of things go into making this possible, as any book or magazine publisher will tell you, including the choice of typeface, point size, space between lines (leading) and colour of paper. Yet, when it comes to the preparation of legal documents the profession seems to be willfully ignorant about what makes for persuasive print, favouring remnants of the typewriter age combined with bad aspects of word processing technology.
I want to focus now on only one issue: the use of justified text — that is, text printed in such a way that the right margins of all lines are equal. (The alternative — where lines of text are more or less the same length — is known as “ragged right.”) Almost all books printed nowadays use justified text, and as a consequence we’ve been led to believe that the rectangular look is a hallmark of professionalism and so must be found in all our documents. There’d be nothing wrong with this if the tools we use to create our documents were as sophisticated as those used by book publishers. But we use word processors, which, though they offer us justified text, are incapable of the flexible spacing adjustments necessary to make the result readable.
Proper typesetting calculates the best way to achieve a fixed right margin, spreading out the needed spacing not simply between words but subtly between letters within words, so the end result is a line that the eye can traverse without falling into ditches. Word processors dig ditches, in part because they don’t adjust letter spacing. Some of the time — much of the time in some documents — we can read a word processor justified text without too much difficulty, just the slightly strenuous feel of striding across double spaces. But without warning the document can present you with a word every so often, in effect more gap than grit. The effect is almost comic — not a common desideratum in legal docs — and always an irritant to the mind, which is seeking sense.
Stop justifying text on word processors. (Or give your work product to printers who can use proper typesetting tools.) To continue justifying badly creates the impression of ineptness, rather than professionalism.
I’m directing this injunction at the courts as well as at lawyers. The Supreme Court continues to justify the text of its judgments, as do the courts of appeal in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. (These judgments are simply reproduced as received by CanLII.) It cannot be that there’s something illicit about ragged right margins in court decisions: the courts of appeal in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (all part of where the country is ragged right?) and British Columbia release them that way.
(When the margin problem is fixed we then need to stop the typewriter practice of putting two spaces after a period. The Alberta Court of Appeal, I’m pleased to see, uses one space after a period.)
Look at this small passage taken from a recent SCC case:
Now look at it in “ragged right”:
Nothing in the Supreme Court rules concerning factums requires that the text be justified. Nothing in the best practices of typography requires it. Readability, in fact, requires ragged right.
See also The Friday Fillip: Ampersand | Lawyer Type | Lawyer Type (2) | Lawyer Type (3): Of Squigglies, Pilcrows, and Gaspers