8 best practices for better legal information
Do you present or create legal information for people in Ontario?
Using these 8 best practices can help people trust your information and use it.
1. Say who is responsible for the information.
Readers can trust and use information when they know it is from a reliable source.
Give the name of your organization.
Explain why you’re trustworthy.
Tell people enough about your organization to gain their confidence that the information is reliable. You can do this on your website. For example:
- describe the legal expertise of your staff or your legal reviewers
- tell them about your funders or community partners
- talk about your board of directors and their experience and backgrounds
- tell them about your organization’s history or track record
Include contact information for your organization.
Telling people how to contact your organization increases confidence that you are an accountable and trustworthy organization. Providing contact information also lets people ask questions or give feedback.
“The Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations (FMTA) is a non-profit organization which advocates for better rights for tenants.”
“The only stand-alone family law support centre for abused women in Canada, Luke’s Place provides direct services to hundreds of women and their children in Durham Region every year.”
2. Tell users where the information applies.
Laws may apply to only one province, or to one city or area within a province. Saying where a law applies helps readers know if it applies to them. Online searches often give results from different regions, and readers may not know if the information applies to where they live.
Say that the information applies to Ontario, Canada.
When the information is online, it’s a good practice to say both Ontario and Canada, as people may not know that Ontario is a province of Canada.
Make the jurisdiction easy to see.
Put the jurisdiction where it stands out and is easy to see – for example, on the top of each web page that includes legal content. If the jurisdiction is in the name of your resource, you don’t need to say it separately. If the jurisdiction is in your organization’s name but hard to see, you may still want to say it separately.
“This guide contains information about laws and policies in Ontario. The information may not apply to you if you live outside of Ontario.”
“This information applies to Ontario, Canada.”
3. Include the date of the last review by a legal expert.
Tell people both that the legal information has been reviewed for accuracy and when it was reviewed.
Ask a legal expert to review the information for legal accuracy.
The lawyer, paralegal, or community legal worker who does this should have recent, on-the-ground experience in the area of law.
Have a legal review done regularly and include the most recent review date.
Update the last reviewed date even when a legal review doesn’t change the content.
Make sure the review date is easy to see.
The legal review date will stand out, for example, at the bottom of each web page that has legal content. There may be different review dates for different pieces of information on your website.
Explain why the date is important.
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.
“Reviewed for legal accuracy on [date].”
4. Tell readers who the information is for or how it can be used.
People are more likely to engage with the information – and trust it – if they see that it’s meant for them.
Say who you want to read the information.
They could be people in a particular demographic, for example, older adults. Or they could be people in a certain situation, for example, workers in the food service industry.
Explain how the information can be used.
Make clear what action your readers can take. Some information you provide may be explanatory. Other information may be more about possible ways to take action.
Say who or what the information is for, in a prominent place.
This could be in the title, subtitle, opening description, or early in the text.
“This information is for people with disabilities who need their support person or attendant to be with them in hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic”, from Advocacy Toolkit, by Arch Disability Law Centre.
“This booklet provides a summary of your rights at work under the various laws that protect workers” from Your Rights at Work, Action Guide for Fair Employment, by Workers’ Action Centre.
5. Write so the reader can understand it easily.
People want to understand information the first time they read it. Information that’s written clearly and is easy to understand is more likely to be used by your readers.
Use clear language techniques.
Write in the active voice. Use the present tense as it’s clearer and easier to understand than the future or past tense. Use a conversational tone.
Use short sentences and short paragraphs.
Try to write sentences that are not more than about 15 words, or 25 words at most. Write short paragraphs with one idea per paragraph.
Avoid legal jargon.
Use words the reader knows. Define any legal words that your readers need to know to deal with their situation.
Test your information if you can.
Testing your draft information can help you make improvements, and it doesn’t have to be costly. Showing your information to five people can reveal most issues. It’s best if your testers are also your intended readers. But, if that’s not possible, ask people who were not involved in creating the information, and who may have relevant experience.
“Five Steps to Plain Language”: a concise guide by The Center for Plain Language.
“Better Legal Information Handbook: Practical Tips for Community Workers”: a detailed handbook for developing and writing effective legal information by Community Legal Education Ontario.
6. Make the layout and design clean and easy to use.
People want to skim information quickly, see what the text is about, and find what they need. A visually appealing presentation and design draw people in.
Put important information first.
Start with your conclusion and work backwards.
Use white space.
White space on a page or screen is easier on the eyes. Literacy experts recommend including plenty of white space with your text.
Make information easy to scan.
Most people scan, particularly when reading online information. Use techniques that make scanning easier, such as:
- using headings
- putting key terms in bold
- using bulleted lists
- putting key points in highlighted boxes
Use images or other graphic elements to make important information stand out.
- photos and illustrations make information appealing and highlight important points
- graphic symbols such as check marks can help people find information
- flowcharts and decision trees can show how a process works
7. Write and design your information to be as inclusive and accessible as possible.
Creating information that is engaging and accessible to the diversity of your intended readers is more likely to be used by most or all of them.
Learn about your intended readers.
Learn about the issues and barriers your readers face. Understand their literacy levels, their preferred language, and their access to the internet. Make sure your information is accessible to them.
If you’re using graphics and images, make sure they reflect the diversity of your intended readers.
It is important that your intended readers see that your materials are intended for them. Images that reflect their race, abilities, age, or gender can help with this, but do not overuse images that may perpetuate stereotypes. Test your graphics or images if possible.
Include design elements that increase accessibility for people of diverse abilities. Design elements may include:
- sufficient colour contrast
- a transcript or captions for audio or video resources
- alternative text, or “alt text” , for images, links, and charts
- providing PDFs in an accessible format
Resources on writing for the web and on user experience that we’ve found useful: “AccessAbility: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design”: a guide to accessible design, by the Association of Registered Graphic Designers. “Web accessibility: An editor’s guide”: a blog post that gives pointers on making web content, by Editors Toronto.
8. Include referrals to free or low-cost legal assistance.
People want to know where to get access to the help they need, and whether the services they need are provided:
- in person
- by phone
- virtually, such as through Zoom
- in other ways
Refer to services that your readers are likely to use and will be able to access. Free options may include:
- legal clinics
- legal aid services
- pro bono or “low bono” (discounted rate) programs
- legal help lines
Give accurate information about the service and who qualifies.
Check that your description of the service and its availability are accurate. Make sure to note if there are financial eligibility requirements, or other requirements your readers must meet.
Include services that are free and say they are free.
Many people are seeking free assistance. Where possible, include free sources of legal help.
Include details about ways the service can be accessed.
Consider the diverse needs of your readers. Some may need service in a language other than English. Others may need to speak to a person rather than access information online. Add these details to your listing.
“If you are living on a low income in our geographic area, we provide help in the legal areas listed. All of our legal services are free,” from Community Advocacy and Legal Centre.
“If you can’t afford a lawyer, call our Free Legal Advice Hotline for up to 30 minutes of free legal advice and assistance,” from Pro Bono Ontario.