DIT A2J 2: Publish Plain-Language Public Legal Help Guides for Your Community

The Canadian Bar Association and the Law Society of the United Kingdom have recently published a selection of guides to common legal issues. The legal help guide model deserves close attention from government and the bar as a means of improving access to justice by improving public legal literacy, a concept I’ve written about elsewhere.

Some of the existing materials

The Law Society has published twelve guides in the Common Legal Issues section of its website, covering topics like buying a homemaking a willgetting a divorceprobating an estate and setting up a small business. The online guides are smartly-designed and make great use of graphics and videos. Each guide is linked to a two-page PDF document, also available in large print, which contains a lot more information.

The CBA has published twelve guides of its own in the Legal Health Checks section of its website, which discuss “legal wellness“, buying a homeseparationseparation and parenting disputescommon legal life events and other issues, and provide legal information for youth about issues like moving out, getting a job and dating. Each of these guides is a one- or two-page document written in reasonably plain language.

The Law Society’s materials do a great job of pairing the expanded media capacity of the internet with traditional text, and I really like that the PDF documents are available in larger text and in other formats on demand. However, the guides could be written for a slightly lower reading level and use less technical jargon.

The CBA’s materials, on the other hand, do a great job of delivering information in plain language, however they are brief to the point that they overlook a lot of important information, which has the potential to undermine their usefulness and risk leaving the reader with a misleading impression of their subject matter. For example, the entire text of the single-page guide on separation and parenting reads as follows:

You can save time, money, and stress when you get legal information and advice early. By getting legal help with parenting decisions when you are separating, you can:

  • Focus on your children’s needs, and make decisions in their best interests.
  • Help your children keep a good relationship with both parents, even if it’s hard at first.
  • Plan ahead and avoid conflict.
  • Get information about free and low-cost services that could help your family.
  • Keep decisions about your children’s future in the family, instead of handing decisions to a judge who does not know you or your children.
  • Spend your money on your family instead of on a court case.
  • Protect yourself and your children immediately when you’re at risk of abuse.
  • Protect yourself financially.
  • Get support for yourself. Separating is difficult.
  • Find lasting solutions that work best for your family.

How to help your children adjust to separation

  • Let them love the other parent.
  • Keep them away from conflict.
  • Consider their wishes and interests in decisions that impact them. 
  • Inform yourself about your rights and about the effects of separation on your family.
  • Settle things without delay so they have stability in their lives.
  • Get help when you need it.
  • Protect them and yourself from domestic violence.
  • Spend wisely so you have money for their future. 

This says very little about resolving disputes about parenting after separation and reads as a collection of aphorisms that pretty much everyone can get behind: get help when you need it; plan ahead and avoid conflict; find lasting solutions that work best for your family. Although the guide discourages using court to resolve parenting disputes, telling people to keep decisions about your children’s future in the family doesn’t say “go to mediation” or “try a collaborative settlement process,” and could be read as saying keep your problem to yourself, which is unlikely to be helpful if family violence is an issue.

The problem here really boils down to balancing the virtues of brevity (inexpensive to reproduce, easy to distribute, less intimidating to the target audience, more likely to be read) with its risks (incomplete information, information provided may not be applicable to reader, information may deceive as to resolution or simplicity of problem), an issue which has perpetually plagued public legal information. How do you provide material that is short enough to be easily accessible and cheaply publishable that covers its subject matter with sufficient detail to be actually useful and not litigitably misleading? Well, we’re lawyers and what we’ve usually done is cover the risks arising from brevity by disclaimers.

As a result, the CBA and Law Society materials repeatedly mention the need for legal advice and urge readers to retain counsel. Although both suggestions are indisputably wise, they unfortunately lend a somewhat self-serving flavour to the guides, implying that their real purpose is to urge the public to hire lawyers (emphasis in original):

A lawyer can give you legal advice. This is advice specifically for you and about your best next steps. Getting advice early can prevent problems from growing. Good advice during or after a dispute can also save time and money in the long term. A lawyer can negotiate and help you reach a fair settlement, so going to court isn’t necessary.

Your real estate agent knows the housing market and has a duty to work for you. However, your agent is not a lawyer and cannot protect your legal interests. … Speak to a lawyer before you sign anything, including an offer to purchase. Protect your interests. 

Now I did say that the idea of legal help guides has merit, and it does.

The idea of guides to common legal life events strikes me as an extraordinarily appealing concept. By alerting people to the legal implications of decisions like leasing a car, moving in with a boy- or girlfriend, quitting a job or renting an apartment, these guides could improve people’s legal literacy and in so doing may help to avert legal problems before they arise or minimize their impact once they have arisen. (As a family law lawyer, I often wished I could go back in time to tell my clients what they were getting into before they did; speaking to someone contemplating separation was always far more productive than speaking who’d already split.) Legal literacy also strikes me as being an essential element of informed, competent citizenship and a goal independently worth pursuing.

This idea is something that can be taken up by the CBA’s provincial and territorial branches, by regional bar associations like the Calgary Bar Association, by professional groups like the Trial Lawyer’s Association of British Columbia or by individual lawyers having the time, expertise and patience. Guides like these could be published in print or online, or both; the cost of maintaining material on the web is negligible and such material can be updated quickly and easily. Once the time to draft and vet the content is contributed, legal life guides could be an extremely cost-effective means of improving access to justice.

Considerations about content

Here are a few principles that might guide the content of future public legal health guides.

  1. Avoid the appearance of self-promotion as much as possible. Public legal education materials should be about providing information and empowering the reader, not selling him or her a lawyer. Materials that look like a sales pitch lose something in terms of their credibility.
  1. Be scrupulous in the use of plain language, assiduously avoiding words like assiduous and scrupulous. Aim for a low reading level and expect access by people whose first language is not English. Use definitions to explain technical terms and difficult concepts. Be alert to words that have a specific legal meaning that is different from their common, everyday meaning.
  1. Be as brief as the subject matter allows. Long materials, especially in print, discourage reading. If a subject can’t be accurately addressed in two pages, consider breaking the subject into more than one guide.
  1. Accommodate brevity in print materials with paired online materials. Web publications are incredibly versatile. In addition to allowing the author to expound at greater length, they can provide the reader with links to definitions, source materials and other resources that enrich understanding. Make sure that the address of the web materials are conspicuously highlighted in any printed documents.
  1. Do not sacrifice accuracy for brevity. Alert the reader when something is generally, often or usually the case rather than always the case. Highlight common errors and mistakes. Alert the reader when further reading or further information is required.
  1. Exploit the special capacity of websites to educate. At relatively low cost, none if you have talent in the area, websites can incorporate graphics, animations, spoken word and video. (For the cost of a junior programmer, websites can contain interactive elements such as maps, pictures, charts and so on.) Good graphics can explain complex ideas much more succinctly than would be possible in text. Animations, videos and audio can improve the accessibility of material, especially for people whose literacy or English skills are lacking.
  1. Think globally, write locally. National organizations must draft materials that are accurate throughout the country. With provincially- or municipally-regulated subject matter, producing accurate information may be impossible or result in grotesque over-generalizations. Smaller, regional groups can and should prepare material that is specific to local law, custom and practice and better address the needs of the community.
  1. Be neutral but make recommendations when useful. The content of these materials should be presented in a neutral, apolitical and nonjudgmental manner that doesn’t make assumptions about gender, sexual orientation or income. That said, these materials can and should be recommendatory when a particular course of action should be taken or avoided. For example, although you can bring a contempt application against your neighbour for lying about the colour of your car in an affidavit, you probably shouldn’t. Say so.
  1. Make a point of discussing dispute resolution options other than court. Public legal education materials too often leave the impression that courts and tribunals are the only way that legal disputes are resolved. It is in the interests of the administration of justice, and usually the pocketbook of the reader, to promote the use of dispute resolution mechanisms other than legal action when appropriate.

Potential subject matter

In no particular order, here are some common life events that might be suitable for discussion as a public legal health guide:

  • Renting an apartment/house for renters
  • Renting an apartment/house for property owners
  • Contracting and paying for utilities
  • Subletting an apartment
  • Living with roommates
  • Moving your home
  • Getting apartment/house insurance
  • Being a home owner
  • Paying property taxes
  • Getting a drivers licence
  • Buying/leasing a car/motorcycle
  • Getting car insurance
  • Owning a pet
  • Applying for a loan/line of credit
  • Applying for a credit card
  • Loaning money
  • Applying for a job
  • Hiring an employee
  • Hiring a contractor/tradesperson
  • Working on contract
  • Running an unincorporated business
  • Running an incorporated business
  • Incorporating a business
  • Getting sick
  • Getting life insurance
  • Getting private health insurance
  • Planning for death
  • Planning for incapacity
  • Being an executor
  • Being a trustee
  • Having a baby
  • Adopting a baby
  • Being a parent
  • Living with a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner
  • Getting married
  • Separating
  • Getting divorced
  • Changing names
  • Paying taxes
  • Being a union member
  • Applying for EI
  • Geting hurt on the job
  • Applying for worker’s compensation
  • Applying for CPP/QPP/OAS
  • Applying for CPP/QPP disability benefits
  • Applying for social assistance
  • Travelling outside of Canada
  • Getting travel insurance
  • Going to college/university
  • Applying for a student loan
  • Talking to the police
  • Being arrested/charged with a criminal offence
  • Dealing with family violence
  • Dealing with child protection
  • Reporting child abuse/neglect
  • Voting
  • Being a juror
  • Being a witness
  • Hiring a lawyer
  • Firing a lawyer
  • Coming to Canada
  • Becoming a citizen
  • Being a citizen

Other forms of legal help guides might focus on the legal issues commonly experienced by specific communities, such as indigenous peoples, the LGBTTQ community, people who are new to Canada, youth, the elderly, disabled persons, people living in poverty and the homeless.

It would also be useful if such guides could be translated into other languages, however unless a suitable partner can be found, the cost of translation may be prohibitive. Translation is not just a one-time expense, it’s a recurring cost as translated materials must be kept just as up-to-date as their source.

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary


  1. Sherry MacLennan

    Great article on the value of public legal education. Every province has one or more agencies that are expert in producing plain language, clearly written legal information for the public. Many have well established distribution networks that raise awareness of new PLEI. There is the potential for collaboration between agencies such as the CBA, Bar Societies and Law Societies and PLEI agencies which if explored might assist in delivery of effective and accessible legal information.