In this post from RightsInfo, Rachel Schon explains how writing in plain English can contribute to a better understanding of human rights, specifically in the domain of legal rights and responsibilities. By communicating this information in more simplistic terms, misunderstanding that could lead to serious consequences might be avoided.
The team at RightsInfo is passionate about ensuring that human rights information is available to as many people as possible and is presented clearly. Last year, we were recognized for this when we won the Communicator Award from the Plain English Campaign. In this feature, we explain why we think plain English is so important for human rights.
What is plain English?
Plain English is a style of communication that avoids complicated words or phrases in order to be more easily understood by the reader. In the UK, the Plain English Campaign has been campaigning for almost forty years against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information, particularly in legal and government documents.
Why write in plain English?
Writing in plain English allows your message to reach as many people as possible. Clear writing can also avoid misunderstandings, that may have serious consequences. This is particularly important when the information communicated is about legal rights and responsibilities.
In some contexts, the law even gives people a right to expect plain English. For example, European law has directed for more than two decades that terms in a consumer contract can only be enforced if they have been written in ‘plain and intelligible language’.
Plain English is not only important when it comes to the law. Any organisation can apply for a ‘Crystal Mark’ to certify that their documents have been written clearly, and you will often see this on, for example, NHS information leaflets.
Why is plain English important for human rights?
While human rights law in practice gives rise to complex issues, the basic concepts are not difficult to understand. However, the confusing way human rights debates are presented in much of the media can lead people to assume that the underlying principles must also be complex.
We have tried to clarify some of the myths around human rights in our infographicThe 14 Worst Human Rights Myths.
This confusion needs to be addressed, because if people do not understand or engage with human rights concepts, they will not be able to uphold the human rights of others, or challenge public bodies when their own human rights may have been breached. This is particularly important after the cuts to Legal Aid which has made it even harder for vulnerable people to get legal representation.
It also means that false ideas about human rights continue to be believed. This makes it difficult to have a meaningful public conversation about issues such as the proposed Bill of Rights.
While human rights are relevant to everybody, a clear understanding is especially important for those who are most vulnerable to human rights abuses, which can include marginalized groups such as those with a learning disability or a low level of education. These groups are also those who may find it the most difficult to understand human rights concepts if they are not presented simply and clearly.
The use of plain English can help to ensure that these ideas are presented in a way that is easy for as many people as possible to understand, and therefore broaden the reach and impact of human rights within our society.
Rachel Schon works at the Helen Bamber Foundation. She previously worked as a researcher at the Young Foundation specializing in social innovation and social enterprise.