In producing legal information for the public, these eight practices have the biggest impact on helping people trust your information, understand it, and put it to use.
1. Say who made the information
When your audience knows a piece of information is from a reliable source, they’re more likely to trust it.
Say the name of your organization
Research shows that source information is crucial to credibility. Even with digital information, where source can get murky due to how easily information can be shared, source plays a critical role in credibility judgments (Sundar, 2008).
Explain (briefly) why you’re trustworthy
Tell people enough about your organization to gain their confidence. For example, you might mention that you’re a non-profit, describe the legal expertise of your staff, or explain the purpose of your organization’s work.
Include contact info
Include contact information so people can follow up with questions, suggest improvements, or request alternate formats.
Plus, for online information
If the information is online, make sure the source or author information prints out.
“Gladue and You is published by Legal Aid BC, a non-profit organization that provides legal aid to British Columbians. Feedback on this publication? Contact us at email@example.com.”
“The Tenant Survival Guide is produced by the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, a non-profit organization that promotes the legal protection of tenants across British Columbia. Our TRAC Tenant Information Line is 1-800-655-1185.”
“This website is from People’s Law School, a non-profit society in British Columbia. We provide free education and information to help people effectively deal with the legal problems of daily life. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
2. Say where the information applies
Saying which location (or “jurisdiction”) the information applies to helps people decide if the information is relevant to them.
Say the location where the information applies
Say the information applies in British Columbia. When the information is online, it’s a good practice to also include “Canada”, as Canadian provinces may not be recognized by people in other parts of the world.
If the jurisdiction is in the name of your resource (for example, “Family Law in British Columbia”), you don’t need to say it separately. If the jurisdiction is included in your organization’s name or logo, you should still say the jurisdiction separately. Some people may not see the organization name or logo; even those who do may be uncertain if the jurisdiction follows from the name.
Make the jurisdiction easy to see
Put the jurisdiction where it’s easy to see — for example, at the top of each web page, on the front cover of a print publication, or in the opening titles of a video.
Plus, for online information
For online information, put the jurisdiction on each web page of legal information. Many visitors go directly to a specific page rather than through a site’s homepage or an introduction page. Make sure the jurisdiction information prints out.
“This information applies to British Columbia, Canada.”
3. Review the information for legal accuracy – and say you’ve done so
Knowing that information has been reviewed by a qualified expert makes people more confident it’s accurate and reliable.
Have the information legally reviewed
Have any legal information reviewed by a qualified lawyer — one who has practical, on-the-ground experience in that area of law. In some circumstances, the legal review can be done by a community legal worker or other legal professional where they are a recognized subject matter expert who combines legal knowledge with extensive practical experience.
Say you’ve done a legal review
Tell people the information has been reviewed for legal accuracy.
Provide information about the reviewer’s expertise
Displaying the reviewer’s name and credentials (for example, their affiliation or a short bio) can significantly boost confidence in the reliability of the information.
“Reviewed for legal accuracy by [name of reviewer], [affiliation of reviewer].”
“Reviewed for legal accuracy by [name of reviewer].”
“Reviewed for legal accuracy.”
4. Include the date of the last legal review
Knowing when information was last reviewed by a qualified expert helps people assess if it’s up-to-date and reliable.
Include the legal review date
For any legal information, include the date of the last review of the information for legal accuracy. Update the last reviewed date even when a legal review doesn’t change the content.
Make the review date easy to see
Put the legal review date where it’s easy to see — for example, at the top of each web page, on the front cover of a print publication, or in the opening titles of a video.
Explain the importance of the date
It’s a good practice to include a note saying the law can change and your information is accurate as of the date it was last reviewed. You might also say that even where there has been a long period since the last reviewed date, the information may still be current. Some areas of law remain unchanged for years.
Plus, for online information
For online information, put the last reviewed date on each web page with legal information. Many visitors go directly to a specific page rather than through a site’s homepage or an introduction page. Make sure the last reviewed date prints out.
“Reviewed for legal accuracy: [month, year].”
With online information, if you update parts of the information without conducting a full review of the material, you could tell people this. It will help them assess the currency of the information. For example, you might say:
“Updated regularly; last formal review for legal accuracy in [month, year].”
5. Say who or what the information is for
People are more likely to engage with information — and trust it — if they see it is meant for them.
Identify the audience
Identify your target audience. It might be a demographic, such as older adults. It might be individuals in a specific situation, such as workers in a certain sector or people going to court. The narrower your scope, the more effective your information will be. (See best practice #6 for tips on developing your information with your target audience in mind.)
Identify the purpose of the information
Ask yourself: what are you trying to achieve with the information? Are you trying to inform people, to empower people to take action, to encourage people to become engaged citizens? What do you want your audience to be able to do as a result of your information? To do this, what do they need to know, and what skills do they need?
State your audience or purpose
Put your audience or purpose front-and-centre. For example, you might state them in the title, subtitle, or opening description.
“Welcome to A Teen Guide to Parental Separation and Divorce. If your parents have recently separated or divorced (or you think they may be about to), or you have a friend in that situation, this site is for you.”
– “Families Change“, from Justice Education Society
“Information for people in relationships who need protection from violence or the threat of violence.”
– For Your Protection, from Legal Aid BC
“Disability Alliance BC has prepared this Help Sheet to help you complete the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction’s designation application form for the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) benefit.”
– “The Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Application Help Sheet“, from Disability Alliance BC
6. Make the information understandable for the intended audience
Information that’s understandable is more likely to be used by your audience and have the impact you seek.
Focus on your audience
In developing your information, focus on your target audience and what you want them to be able to do. Establish what issues they face, their existing knowledge, the skills they have, and the barriers they face.
Take a user perspective
Deal with issues from the perspective of your audience. For example, let’s say your information explains a worker’s options if they haven’t been paid. Describe the steps the worker can take in the order they are likely to encounter them — not (for example) in the order the steps appear in employment standards legislation.
Decide on the reading level you’re targeting
Decide what reading level you’re targeting with your information. To do that, consider the reading ability of your audience and their familiarity with the subject. Most people prefer to read several grades below their level of education. It just takes less energy.
Use plain language techniques
Use an active voice, short sentences, common words, and other plain language techniques. For tips, see best practice #12 on editing your language for clarity and simplicity.
Measure the readability of your text
Measure the reading level of your text. A number of “readability measures” can be used. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is the most widely-used measure and can be found using an online readability checker or in Microsoft Word’s readability statistics. Many organizations targeting a broad public audience, such as the Canadian Public Health Association and many mainstream newspapers, aim for around a grade 8 reading level. For audiences with low literacy or whose first language is not English, consider aiming even lower for print information, and still lower for online information.
Be mindful of the many factors that affect comprehension
A high reading level can indicate a problem with your text, but a low reading level doesn’t necessarily mean it is understandable. Many factors that readability formulas can’t measure have a big impact on making your information understandable. These factors include how the information is organized, the tone and “voice” used, the use of graphics, and the use of white space. See best practice #7 on making the design clean, engaging, and easy to use.
Test your information with your audience
To help make your information understandable, test it with your audience. Testing doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Showing your information to five people can reveal most issues with your information. For tips, see best practice #11 on testing with your audience.
Measure the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of your information with ReadablePro or WriteClearly.
Community Legal Education Ontario’s Better Legal Information Handbook: Practical Tips for Community Workers has a section on “choosing the right language.”
Clear Language and Design (CLAD) offers tips for measuring and improving the readability of your information.
The British Columbia government has guidelines and resources for plain language writing and developing audience-focused content.
7. Make the design clean, engaging, and easy to use
Good design makes information more likely to be used and easier to understand. It also increases people’s confidence the information is reliable.
Focus on your audience
Visually engaging design can draw people in and keep their attention. But audiences vary. Tailor your design to what your audience considers engaging and easy to use.
Use white space (that is, blank space)
“White space” — that is, blank space — on a page or screen is easy on the eyes. Literacy experts recommend a ratio of 50/50 for white space and text.
Put important information first
Lead with the most important information. Start with your conclusion, and work backwards.
Use lots of headings
Headings make it easier for people to find what they need. Headings also break up the text, making it easier to understand.
Make information easy to scan
Particularly with online information, most people scan. Use techniques that make scanning easier, such as bolding key terms, using bulleted lists, and putting key points in highlighted boxes.
Use images or other visuals
Photos and illustrations make your information more visually appealing, and you can use them to highlight important points. Graphic symbols such as check marks (✔︎) or hand symbols can help people find and understand information. Flowcharts and decision trees can show how a process works or the steps needed to deal with a problem.
Test your design with your audience
Test your design with your audience to help make sure it’s engaging and easy to use. Testing doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Showing your information to five people can reveal most issues with your design. For tips, see best practice #11 on testing with your audience.
Here are the design best practices in action in a booklet, Your Welfare Rights: How to Apply for Welfare, from Legal Aid BC
Here are the design best practices on a website, Dial-A-Law, operated by People’s Law School.
CLEO’s Better Legal Information Handbook: Practical Tips for Community Workers offers tips for clear and visually engaging design in both print and online.
8. Refer to free or low-cost legal help
Many people may want one-on-one help with their problem. But they may not be able to afford private lawyers. Providing options for free assistance helps increase access to legal help.
Include places where people can access justice
Include contact information of places where people may be able to get free or low-cost legal help. Free options include legal clinics, pro bono programs, legal aid, or legal help lines. Make sure the referrals are to services your audience is likely to use and able to access.
Verify the availability of the service
Consider using the Clicklaw HelpMap link for referrals you make online. The Clicklaw information is updated by service providers directly, so it’s timely and reliable. Plus, people can navigate elsewhere on Clicklaw to find other options for assistance.
“If you have limited means, contact Access Pro Bono for free legal advice at … “
“In the Lower Mainland and Victoria, you can get help from law students. Contact their clinics at … “
“For help making a complaint against a government body, contact the Ombudsperson office at … “
Ready to go further?
Want to make your legal information even easier to find, understand, and use? Eight additional best practices can help you further strengthen your information.