This summer, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission received a Crystal Mark for our new leaflet about how to make a complaint.
It means that the information is officially ‘crystal clear’. It was a first for us – and a bit of a challenge. The process for making a complaint about a lawyer has – after all – been described as ‘a huge complex maze’.
So why did we decide to tackle it in plain English?
Well, mainly because we wanted to act on what our customers have been telling us. We know that they want us to keep it simple and avoid the jargon.
Our Consumer Panel has also had plenty to say on this subject. The Panel was set up to keep an eye on what we do, from a consumer rights perspective. It regularly reminds us that the average reading age in Scotland is 11.
But what about customers who are highly-educated? Couldn’t plain English be perceived as patronising amongst those who know a lot about the subject?
Interestingly, research carried out in 2012 found the opposite. Not only did 80 per cent of people prefer plain English but those with specialist knowledge had an even stronger preference for it. One explanation for this is that people with high levels of literacy and expertise often have the most to read (and even less time to wade through complicated content). This tallies with our own experience: it’s not just legal consumers who want us to speak plainly. Occasionally, we’ve had the same feedback from lawyers.
Efficiency has also been a motivator for us in terms of plain English. A 2006 study on web-users found that people – regardless of education and literacy level – completed tasks faster when clear language was used. They also made fewer mistakes and had fewer questions. If your staff are spending less time answering queries from confused customers or service users, surely that makes for a more efficient business model. And if your customers understand exactly what you’re telling them, aren’t they more likely to do what you want them to do?
Finally, we were aware that we needed to act on our own advice. Because we’ve dealt with around 12,000 complaints, we know that poor communication is more likely to cause problems than anything else. We see complaints that would never have happened had a Terms of Business letter been clear or had a client understood the advice they’d received. That’s why we’re always emphasising the importance of clear language.
Meanwhile we’d got a bit blind to our own bad habits – like talking about ourselves in the third person and using unnecessarily formal language. And sometimes, we just used too many words. We’ve taken a few steps in the right direction. After producing information about how to complain in plain English, we’ve now also published our first ever Easy Read guide. It goes further than plain English in that it’s designed for people with learning difficulties or disabilities.
And while we’re still at the start of our journey, we’ve learnt a few things already.
First and foremost, it’s not easy to write in plain English. We’ve discovered that writing a long, rambling sentence full of jargon is much easier than presenting information clearly and concisely.
Second, plain English isn’t going to offend people. If you’re saving them time, they’re probably not going to complain about it – no matter how many degrees they have.
And finally, things are changing, even in the legal sector. Reports of judges issuing plain English and short format judgments are getting almost commonplace in the media.
In 2018, complex language full of long sentences and Latin phrases won’t make us look intelligent – it’ll make us look out of touch.
Michael Shaw is Communications & Information Officer and Ruth Morgan is Marketing and Special Projects Officer with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission