It’s time we thought differently about delivering legal services.
The practice of law has changed. The days of hiring practitioners with specialist knowledge and decades of experience for small litigation, such as workplace disputes, are over. Law is no longer reserved for those in wigs and robes, and we are all the better for it. *
Plain language law
One commendable development in our legal tradition is the move towards plain language law. Plain language means writing with the needs of the audience in mind, and ensuring that any communication is clear, practical and elegant. This change in perspective is reflected in the drafting of modern legislation, in contracts and agreements, and in judgments and journal articles.
The phenomenal work of the judiciary in this regard should be celebrated. Examples abound in Australian case law where judges have questioned, and in some instances criticised, convoluted drafting.
Traditional legal language in its most extreme form excludes those who do not have years of legal education. This limits the distribution of knowledge, reduces access to justice, and creates an unnecessary divide between lawyers and everyone else.
Access to justice
Traditional legal language and the prohibitive cost of hiring those with legal experience, prevents many people from participating in the justice system. One solution designed to address this is the exceptional work of generalist and specialist community legal centres. However, while necessary, these organisations are not and cannot be the only solution.
Plain language law and accompanying technological solutions, such as artificial intelligence, firmly return power into the hands of those who need it the most.
The combination of increasingly plain language law and modern technology means that the work of Australian courts and tribunals is now more accessible than ever. Legal databases and solutions-focused platforms present answers as concisely and plainly as possible, and can assist in reducing reliance on expensive legal specialists.
Reshaping the law
For legal service providers, plain language law can be perceived as undermining the traditional legal profession and revenue stream by changing the bar for entry. However, the democratisation of law doesn’t mean that the market for legal products and solutions will disappear – there will always be a demand for creative, client-focused lawyers, but the market will change and grow around them. Take, for example, the opportunities created by operation of the Fair Work Commission.
Section 596 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) means that lawyers wanting to represent a client before the Fair Work Commission may only do so with the Commission’s permission. In practice, this means that applicants are often representing themselves or are assisted by union representatives. Respondent businesses may be represented by industrial officers or human resources managers. In rare cases, the respondent may be represented by in-house counsel.
With the exception of in-house counsel, these are people intimately connected with the disputes they’re litigating, but who may not have any kind of legal training. Structures like the Fair Work Commission bring the experience of litigating disputes to a wider array of people, and facilitate the spread of legal knowledge.
This is only one example of this trend. A similar process where lawyers are often removed from the equation (for different reasons) may be seen in minor criminal matters. Plain language law – from legislation to judgment and solution – assists participants in articulating their disputes.
Delivering legal solutions *
Legal products targeted at those with traditional legal training, as well as those without, will capture the market in a legal system evolving towards increasingly plain language. Practical guidelines and fact-focused plain language research tools that match the growing plain language law focus of legislation and judgments will reach a larger and more diverse audience.
Clear, practical and elegant solutions that return power to the user without requiring the input of an expensive specialist should be the target of any organisation seeking to move into or enlarge its presence in the legal space. The practice of law is no longer reserved for those in wigs and robes, and we are all the better for it.
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*This article by Alexander Ross Davis, (Senior Legal Editor, Thomson Reuters Legal Australia), first appeared on Legal Insight AU. Where appropriate links have been changed to offer our NZ readers comparable resources/products to those available to Australian readers.