THE USE OF PLAIN LANGUAGE IN DOCUMENT ASSEMBLY
FOR SELF REPRESENTED LITIGANTS
Plain Language is communication your audience understands the first time they read or hear it. Written material is in plain language if your audience can: find what they need; understand what they find; and use what they find to meet their needs.
Document assembly is the process of using a series of questions to gather information from a person, placing the data collected into a document or group of documents, then offering the completed document back to the user. Example: Turbo Tax
Document assembly software can be broken into two pieces;
1. The guided interview that asks the questions and collects the data, and
2. The assembly software that takes the data and places it correctly into the document.
Legal aid programs and court systems across the country have been experimenting with document assembly systems to assist self-represented litigants
The federal funder of legal aid, The Legal Services Corporation, has been funding many local and national initiatives to sponsor and support the development and delivery of high quality document assembly as part of its 15year, $45 million investment in Technology Innovation Grants (TIG).
One such TIG-funded initiative, LawHelp Interactive (LHI), is a national free platform that hosts the software required to assemble a document. Legal aids, courts, and others can create the guided interview and then send the data to LHI for assembly.
A2J Author®  is a specific kind of interviewing tool. The cloud-based software enables non-technical authors from the courts, clerk’s offices, legal services organizations, and law schools to rapidly build and implement user-friendly web-based interfaces for document assembly. While A2J Author makes the development process easier it is still very important to ensure the content being created is “language-accessible”.
LHI Monthly Calls: To promote the use of LHI and of high quality development, LHI hosts monthly calls and webinars to discuss document assembly. The calls provide continuing education for those who create automated forms and an opportunity for them to share their experiences with others who develop resources for self-represented litigants.
Links to the call recording
https://youtu.be/3BOUCQCBmj4 (approximately 45 minutes)
https://youtu.be/dP1wV9vnoIM (approximately 34 minutes)
Call Summary: The use of plain language in the design of each aspect of online, automated documents - a critical skill needed by those who create self-help materials for self-represented litigants.
Ø Why does this matter? Roughly 50% of native English-speaking Americans are unable to read at the 8th grade level; another 20% are only functionally literate. Limited English speakers find it particularly difficult to navigate legal texts that contain strange words and describe unfamiliar procedures. These readers are substantially disadvantaged in accessing legal information. Current best practice is to write for no higher than a 5th grade reading level.
Ø Readability isn’t just about language level. It’s also about the use of graphics, formatting and layout of content on pages. It is also important to keep in mind the requirements of Section 508 of the ADA which ensures those with disabilities can also easily use web-based content.
Ø Benefits to Courts. The staff time required by court clerks and others to explain forms and legal concepts is greatly reduced if the forms are easy to read and written in plain language.
Plain language should be used in:
ü Guided interviews
ü Instructions targeted to self-represented litigants
ü Website “landing pages” content
Write Clearly www.WriteClearly.org features a Plain Language Library of legal documents available to anyone for free and a free downloadable “gadget” that you can load to any website. The gadget will test the “readability” of the content on that site.
ReadClearly, a software currently in development, can be used on a website to underline complex words (words that appear in the glossary) and define those words for the user by hovering the mouse pointer over the underlined word. The test version of this software is available at https://openadvocate.org/readclearly/.
Document Assembly Programs Best Practices Guide For Court System Development and Implementation Using A2J Author, New York State Courts Access To Justice Program, June 2013 Edition
Writing for Self-Represented Litigants: A Guide for Maryland’s Courts and Civil Legal Services Providers, Maryland Access to Justice Commission, Nov. 2012
 A2J was developed at Chicago-Kent College of Law in cooperation with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) with funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the State Justice Institute (SJI), among others. To learn more about A2J, visit http://www.a2jauthor.org/node/54 To see how A2J works to from the interview through document assembly stages, check out: http://youtu.be/hFarrOALmCE
 Document assembly begins with an “interview.” In this context, an interview is a series of questions presented to the user of an online resource that will form the basis for the unique information about the user and their legal problem that will be used by the assembly software to populate the document(s).
 A landing page is the webpage where a user begins in their document assembly process. Often landing pages offer instructions to the user, a roadmap of the steps necessary to complete the interview, and ultimately to produce the form. An example of a landing page can be seen here: http://floridalawhelp.org/resource/form-reasonable-accommodation-letter