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Do you speak fair trials?

editor - October 11, 2016 - letter of rights, plain language, right to information

Legal jargon can be hard to understand to non-expert audiences. But what are the implications for fair trial rights? Fair Trials have discussed this with Vera Gergely, a plain language expert based in Budapest, Hungary. Currently working as a freelancer, she offers plain language editing and training services to companies in her country. Vera has recently contributed to a project about the Letter of Rights in Hungary together with our partner Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Fair Trials: What is plain language about?

Vera Gergely: Plain language is about communicating clearly. In particular, a communication is in plain language if the language, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can:

  • easily find what they need,
  • understand what they find, and
  • use that information.

Take for instance these two sentences, from the Californian Civil Jury Instructions:

A. “Failure of recollection is common. Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon.”

B. “People often forget things or make mistakes in what they remember.”

Which sentence is immediately understandable?

The first one is clearly written by lawyers for lawyers. It does not take into account the fact that people on jury duty are usually not lawyers. The second one, instead, is in plain language, meaning that it can be understood by laypeople as well.

What does a plain language expert do?

As a plain language expert, I help others to communicate clearly. In the business sector, I often rewrite my clients’ documents, which usually are letters to their customers, to improve their commercial relationship. I also do pro-bono work for charities and I deliver trainings, where the participants can learn the basics of plain language through hands-on practice.

When is plain language important for the right to a fair trial?

Plain language is important every step of the way. It starts from the very concept of rule of law, which is the foundation of a fair criminal justice system, as you can only obey the law if you understand it and if you understand your obligations.

This understanding becomes even more relevant when a person is caught in a criminal proceeding. As you say it yourselves, “People should be told what they are being prosecuted for and shown the evidence against them, in a language they understand.” If arrested, you cannot appeal your detention if you do not understand how you should do it, or that you’re even entitled to it. Knowing your rights during your detention is also fundamental to a fair trial.

Fair Trials, in partnership with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), is working on an EU-wide project to assess the use and contents of rights’ notification standards to arrested people. In this framework, you recently assisted HHC with a research on plain language and the notification of rights in Hungary. Can you tell us more about it?

HHC was indeed examining the currently used Letter of Rights in Hungary and decided to test how comprehensible this is to a non-expert audience. So they devised a questionnaire that was submitted to 300 people in the first round. Afterwards, I helped the Committee in rewriting the Letter of Rights in plain, or at least plainer language. We have then polled the revised letter with 150 people, asking the very same questions.

What were the results?

The results were really promising. Overall we raised the percentage of correct answers from 38% to 62%, which is a huge gain. Part of the reason for this jump is that some information was missing from the original Letter, meaning that the document failed to inform the suspects of all their relevant rights. For instance, the Letter lacked some basic information on the entitlement to a public defender, which we subsequently included in the revised letter. However, if we only consider the questions that had full information in the original Letter, we still get a raise from 58% to 70%. And that is due to plain language.

What does a plain-language letter of rights look like?

First of all, it is written with the reader in mind. This means that you put yourself in your reader’s shoes: you use the words your reader would use, and answer the questions they would have. Here are some dos and don’ts:

Content

  •   Do not write about stuff that the reader doesn’t care about. In the Hungarian context, the official Letter was made up of sentences like “Pursuant to paragraph XXX section ZZZ of   The Code of Criminal Procedure, I caution you that...”. This does not help the suspect at all. They don’t need to know the paragraph, they need to know their rights.
  •   On the other hand, do include every relevant information for the arrested person.

Structure

  •   Use headings and subheadings to organize the text and to make it easier to navigate.
  •   Use white space to separate the heading and paragraphs, they are much more eye-friendly than a wall of text.

Language

  •   Address the reader directly, so don’t say “the detainee has the right” but “you have the right”.
  •   Try to refrain from the legal and policy jargon as much as possible, and use common words instead.
  •   Write in the active voice, so it is always clear who does what.
  •   Write short sentences and short paragraphs. You cannot expect anyone to follow a sentence that spans several lines.

Design

  •   Use plenty of lists (bullet points or numbered lists). If you talk about 3 or more things, usually it makes sense to organise them into a list. It’s much easier to scan and understand than a long sentence.
  •   Emphasise important information with bold text.

Fair trial rights can be hard to understand for a non-expert public. Do you have any tips for activists and lawyers defending fair trial rights to improve the effectiveness of their work?

First of all, you have to think about the curse of knowledge. This means that you cannot forget what you already know: you know what fair trial rights mean, how the judicial system works, the legal jargon etc. But the public does not necessarily know all this and you should keep this in mind all the time.

Secondly, my suggestion would be to get rid of technical jargon and obscure words. See the case of “presumption of innocence” for example: “presumption” is not an easy word for everyone. Instead, it would be more comprehensible to say “innocent until proven guilty”. Similarly, don’t use “incommunicado detention” but prefer a simpler expression like “detained without being able to communicate with the outside world”. It may be longer but it’s definitely clearer.

Finally, you should also consider using examples when trying to convey abstract ideas. In this case, when you talk about fair trials, you can illustrate what it means with a story - presumably about a person who did not have one.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71. For regular updates follow Fair Trials on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of the page. FB iconClick to share this story on Facebook  

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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