A new, interactive glossary from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) translates complex legal terms into plain language that it says courts should use when communicating with the public.
The glossary rephrases 46 terms into simpler language that is more transparent and easier to understand. Examples include:
- Using “amount claimed,” not “ad damnum”
- Using “eviction court,” not “forcible entry and detainer court”
- Using “person who signed,” not “affiant”
The glossary also includes links to a court form or document that uses the suggested language effectively. These examples come from more than 20 different state courts, including several from Illinois.
Why is plain language important?
Complex jargon is common in legal and judicial systems but can be hard for the general public to understand. This is especially important for self-represented litigants, with more than 90,000 cases closed with at least one SRL appearing in Illinois circuit courts in 2021.
More than half (54%) of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade reading level, according to a Forbes report on U.S. Department of Education data. Additionally, 21.5% of people speak a language other than English at home and may have lower English proficiency, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
“Courts have a duty to communicate clearly and effectively with court users,” the NCSC says on its website. “Understandable court forms, orders and other materials help the public use courts effectively and enhance access to justice.”
Plain language resources in Illinois
The Illinois Supreme Court Policy on Plain Language defines plain language as “words and statements, which when written or spoken are clear, concise, well-organized, appropriate to the subject and intended audience, and communicated at a sixth grade reading level.”
The policy dictates that all informational documents and informational instructions shall be drafted in plain language whenever practicable. When more complex legal terms are necessary, judges, court staff, circuit clerks, law librarians, and other justice partners should provide plain language definitions of those terms.
The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice is focused on promoting the use of standardized, plain-language legal forms statewide.
Their work includes developing and automating court forms to use plain language where possible and translating forms into the top six languages spoken in Illinois (Spanish, Polish, Korean, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic).
Brent Page, a Senior Program Manager of Forms at the ATJ Commission, said that complex legal jargon can be a significant obstacle to many of the individuals who use court resources, particularly those with limited English proficiency and low-income individuals who are unable to afford legal representation.
“The goal of our standardized forms is to provide litigants with plain language court forms and instructions that will help them participate meaningfully in their court case,” Page said. “Since the standardized forms project launched in 2012, there has been a process in place to ensure all forms are reviewed for plain language both internally and through our partners at Illinois Legal Aid Online.”
Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) also provides resources in plain language and multiple translations to help people who can’t find or afford attorneys.
“The legal system has its own language. Much like going to a foreign country, going to court can be bewildering for first-time visitors,” said ILAO Executive Director Teri Ross. “Using plain language lends clarity to a confusing system, making it more accessible for everyone.”
The ATJ Commission uses plain language principles and NACM’s Plain Language Guide when training new committee and subcommittee members who develop forms, and has used and will continue to use the NCSC Interactive Plain Language Glossary, as well.
ILAO has their own legal glossary online, but will also review the NCSC glossary for any additional learnings for the future.
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