Typography and Legal Information

You may have noticed that, as of January 2016, the online federal statutes look quite different. According to the announcement, these changes were made to improve the readability of the legislation:

Different styles and sizes of fonts are used to give greater prominence to certain elements and to help direct readers’ eyes more easily through the text. The structure of the legislative text (headings, sections, subsections, paragraphs, etc.) has been made more evident in order to improve readability.

Because headings and sub-headings are larger, they are more noticeable, helping readers to find the information they are looking for, and their sans-serif font helps draw the eye down to the body of the text.

The use of a font with a serif for the denser body of the text helps draw the eye along the length of each line and helps readers distinguish similarly-shaped letters.

As the announcement acknowledges, certain typefaces are intrinsically easier to read. For example, contrast the readability of Baskerville and Fraktur. Other elements affecting readability may be more subtle; for example, does a typeface use serifs (“a small line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol”)? A typeface that uses serifs (e.g. Baskerville) is generally considered to be easier to read than a sans serif typeface (one that doesn’t have serifs, e.g. Helvetica).

Studies that show typography affects retention of information and perception of the quality of information. Errol Morris ran a study on The New York Times website, ostensibly to determine whether readers were optimists or pessimists, but in reality to find out if typeface affected readers’ acceptance of a statement. Of the six typefaces Morris used (Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, Comic Sans, Baskerville, and Computer Modern), he found that readers who saw the statement in Baskerville were most likely to agree with it.Other studies have shown that readers perceive a link between the ease of reading a typeface and the ease of the task it describes:

When [instructions] were presented in an easy-to-read print font (Arial), readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete; but when they were presented in a difficult-to-read print font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long, a full 15.1 minutes […] When the identical recipe was presented in the elegant but difficult-to-read Mistral font, they assumed that it would require more time and more skill than when it was presented in the easy-to-read Arial font.

Another consideration is there is a difference between reading in print and online. Some typefaces are more readable on paper than a computer (and vice versa). In Getting it Right with Type, the author recommends using sans serif typefaces, since on low-resolution screens, small serifs become larger thicker serifs, creating “visual noise.” Verdana (a sans serif typeface) and Georgia (a serif typeface) are recommended since they were designed to be legible on screen.

Judgments on CanLII vary as to font they are in, but does that affect the perception of the user reading them? Certainly the typeface used affects the ease of reading; compare the first example with the second:

Matthew Butterick’s Typography for lawyers deals not just with selection of font (although this is a subject that Butterick is very passionate about) but also with the general layout of documents. Among Butterick’s tips are:

  • Don’t use sans serif typefaces for body text because italicization is poor.
  • Only use capitalization for less than one line and NEVER use capitalization for an entire paragraph.
  • Butterick recommends not using more than two different typefaces in a document. If you want to distinguish text, use point size, bold, italic, or small caps instead of a different typeface. Typefaces should be recognizably different, but you are not required to use one serif typeface and one sans serif typeface. You should use one typeface per paragraph. For example, you might use one typeface for headings, and a different one for body text; similarly in a numbered list you might use one typeface for the numbering and another for the text of the items in the list.
  • Don’t use Times New Roman if you have any other options.

Some courts have stated requirements for font. For example, the British Columbia Court of Appeal requires the use of “12-point Arial font for all text, including citations and footnotes.”

What are the implications for librarians and legal researchers? From a librarian’s point of view, we want to make sure that the information we give library users is as easy to understand as possible. Obviously we have no way of changing the typeface in a book, but if we have a choice of formats in which to provide electronic versions of case law, we should choose the most readable format.

Similarly, when librarians create their own content (for example a “how to” guide or an annotated version of an act), although the information remains the key element, how this information is presented affects how it is perceived and how well it is understood.

Example of Fraktur produced by Manuel Strehl – Traced from File:Schriftzug Fraktur.jpg in Inkscape, CC BY-SA 3.0,


  1. “Don’t use Times New Roman if you have any other option.” Really? I can understand “Don’t use Comic Sans under any circumstances”, but what’s wrong with Times New Roman other than the fact that the quality of its design and its inherent readability have made it one of the most successful and widely-used font faces in the history of print.

    Times New Roman was designed by the renowned British typographer Stanley Morrison in the 1930s for London’s The Times newspaper. Its salient features are elegance, legibility and “scalability” – ie, it is equally clear and readable whether used large-size in headlines or small in the classifieds. It is also remarkably compact, saving valuable space without losing any of its clarity or legibility when being scanned quickly. In fact, Times New Roman was the first “scientifically” designed typeface, subjected to numerous reader studies before the final design was approved. Another of its qualities is that it is as attractive and readable on a computer screen as on paper.

    I can only imagine that the injunction against the use of Times New Roman is prompted by it’s ubiquity and success and not on any objective analysis of its qualities.

  2. Susannah Tredwell

    Butterick doesn’t object to Times New Roman on practical grounds (“Times New Roman is a work­horse font that’s been suc­cess­ful for a rea­son.”) His objections are more philosophical: “When Times New Roman appears in a book, doc­u­ment, or adver­tise­ment, it con­notes apa­thy. It says, “I sub­mit­ted to the font of least resis­tance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the black­ness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.”