I recently attended a conference with a defendant in prison. During the usual lengthy wait to gain entry, I bumped into his barrister who was able to brief me on the purpose of the conference. She shared a document which she wished to take the defendant through, setting out all of the key information he needed to understand, alongside important legal advice.
Time and effort had evidently been invested in making this information as straightforward as possible. The sentences were generally short and key topics were highlighted by helpful subheadings. However, the document ran to eight pages in dense size 11 font, including challenging vocabulary, such as “consecutive” and “recuse”, alongside many complex and abstract concepts.
After reviewing the document, I mentioned to the barrister that, if she provided me with a copy, I could produce an easy read version to be sent to the defendant. She responded, “Well, I’d like to think that it is easy read!”.
The intermediary assessment (conducted previously) found that the defendant had considerable literacy difficulties. Although able to read some simple words with effort, he was unable to read longer or ‘less everyday’ words. His diagnosis of schizophrenia also made it very challenging for him to maintain focus while attempting to read longer text, resulting in further difficulty extracting key points from even simple documents. The document provided by the barrister, although undoubtedly very helpful for a layperson with average literacy skills, would not have meaningfully improved this particular defendant’s access to written information regarding his case.
Why does accessible written information matter?
Ensuring that written information is made as accessible as possible for individuals with communication needs is extremely important:
- The Human Rights Act (1998) stipulates that public services, like the courts and care providers, have to ensure individuals’ rights are protected and respected. Within a court setting, Article 6 (Right to a Fair Trial) states that, “Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights: (a)to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him…” (emphasis author’s own).
- Article 21 of The Human Rights Act states that Governments must adopt measures to make sure disabled people can “express their views freely and access information on an equal basis to everyone else”. There are a number of measures which should be implemented to achieve this, which include producing information in accessible formats in a timely way, at no extra cost to the individual.
- The Equality Act (2010) describes a range of protected characteristics, including disability, and measures which must be taken to ensure individuals with these characteristics are treated equally to others who do not. Section 149, for example, concerns the duties of public sector bodies (such as HMCTS), which include “advance[ing] equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it”. Public sector institutions must:
- “…Remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are connected to that characteristic”.
- “Take steps [e.g. make reasonable adjustments] to meet the needs of persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are different from the needs of persons who do not share it”.
- Accessible Information Standard (2016). Although this standard only applies to organisations supplying NHS care or publicly funded adult social care, it contains valuable information regarding providing people who have a disability or sensory loss with accessible documents.
Why is this important at court?
You only need glance at a court bundle (or bundles) to appreciate the extent to which court cases are built on written information. Contact notes from family cases, psychological reports from expert witnesses, care plans produced by written local authorities, non-molestation orders, written agreements – the list of documents crucial to cases of all kinds goes on and on. With so much written information to digest, an individual with difficulty accessing documents may:
- Not fully understand the case against them.
- Not understand legal advice.
- Not have access to detailed information about their case.
- Not understand what steps they must take (e.g. attending appointments).
- Not understand what the possible outcomes of their case may be.
- Not understand the terms of agreements and orders.
- Break agreements and orders due to lack of understanding (resulting in further legal issues).
Who needs easy read?
Difficulties accessing written information can take many forms. Dyslexia, low literacy stemming from limited access to education in childhood, learning disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, visual impairment – there are many reasons why an individual may have difficulty accessing information in written form. An individual may have:
- Difficulty following written information (letters may jumble, it may be hard to keep your place from line-to-line).
- Difficulties reading words (decoding letters and phonemes).
- Difficulty understanding words (reduced receptive vocabulary).
- Difficulty focusing on written information.
- Difficulty ‘reading between the lines’ (drawing inference) from a text.
- Difficulty picking out ‘key points’ from a text.
I worked with a service user who had diagnoses of mild learning disability, dyslexia and a number of physical and mental health conditions, including a condition which impacted their eyesight. At their intermediary assessment, I found that they were able to read very short words and sentences, with considerable effort, but only when text was large and bold, presented on blue paper.
Before the sentencing hearing, defence counsel emailed me a copy of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order which the court would be making, asking for my assistance in simplifying this for the service user. The order was complex and lengthy, written in small font on white paper. It included very long, low-frequency words (e.g. “encryption”). Complex syntax and long sentences were used, including the phrase: “installing any encryption or wiping software on any device other than that which is intrinsic to the operation of the device”.
To simplify the document, I presented text on a blue background in a large, bold font (following the recommendations set out in the intermediary report). I included images to serve as visual prompts, to assist the service user to most easily ‘pick out’ parts of the order they wished to review. The visual prompts were also designed to support the service user’s understanding of each ‘rule’ in the order.
I simplified the text, as far as possible. In some cases, specialist vocabulary (e.g. “encryption software”) was used and simplification wasn’t possible. In these instances, I added a short, simple definition. I used red and green text to make clear what was and was not allowed. I broke the text up with bullet points as far as possible.
It was challenging to simplify the document without adding considerably to its length. As such, some longer words such as “supervising” remained in the text. Having worked with them previously, I was aware that the service user had a supportive friend who attended hearings and assisted them to read documents and process complex information. This friend had strong literacy skills and understood the service user’s needs well. I was confident that they could assist where necessary.
At the hearing, the defence barrister and prosecution barrister reviewed the document with me, providing further suggestions and advice, to ensure all key legal points were included. The defence barrister helpfully provided blue paper, to ensure the document could be printed in the most accessible format. The barristers presented the simplified document to the judge. The judge explained that the text should not be considered an alternative to the original version of the order. Instead, it should be used to supplement the service user’s understanding, however the text contained in the original order would form the basis for the order itself.
The service user had presented as highly anxious about the rules which would affect their life, expressing great concern about accidentally breaking the rules. After reading the order in conference (with assistance from counsel and myself), they were able to demonstrate understanding of each rule. They were provided with a copy to take home and review as necessary, if they required reminders of ‘the rules’.
Top tips for producing easy read documents
|Use a two-column table format Just like this one. This makes it easy to add pictures and ensure documents are not visually cluttered.|
|Use headings and bullet points This makes it easier for readers to pick out key points and process information.|
|Add images This makes it easier for readers to pick out information and can support their understanding of adjacent text. Only add images with a clear meaning. If a point doesn’t lend itself to pictorial representation, don’t use a loosely-connected image which may cause confusion.|
|Use simple words If low-frequency words can’t be avoided, add a simple definition below. For example: Low-frequency means words which aren’t used very much. They might be more difficult to understand.|
|Use short sentences A Communicourt intermediary report will include information about the service user’s key word level. Although this relates to auditory working memory capacity, it can be a good benchmark when simplifying text. For example, if a service user has a four key word level, try to keep your sentences at this length. It is often helpful to imagine writing in bullet points.|
|Ask the service user what helps them to read Possible adaptations might include: Using a coloured overlay (if they are dyslexic).Presenting documents in a large, bold font.Using widely spaced text.Reducing documents to no more than one page.|
|Ask an intermediary! With sufficient preparation time, the intermediary assigned to a service user can often produce easy read versions of key documents.|
Learn more about court communication from experienced court intermediaries on The Access Brief. A growing library of free resources developed for legal professionals working with clients who have communication needs.
Featured Image credit: Mert Güler