Literacy Requirements of Court Documents: An Underexplored Barrier to Access to Justice

49 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2017 Last revised: 20 Apr 2017

See all articles by Amy Salyzyn

Amy Salyzyn

University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law; University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Lori Isaj

University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Students

Brandon Piva

University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Students

Jacquelyn Burkell

Faculty of Information and Media Studies

Date Written: 2016

Abstract

We know that members of the public find court forms complex. Less is known, however, about what in particular makes these documents difficult for non-legally trained people to complete.

The study described in this article seeks to fill this information gap by deploying a “functional literacy” framework to evaluate court form complexity. In contrast to more traditional conceptions of literacy, “functional literacy” shifts the focus away from the ability to read and towards the ability of individuals to meet task demands. Under this framework, an individual is assigned a literacy level by virtue of the complexity of the tasks that he or she is able to complete. As a result, the framework focuses as much on tasks (and associated documents) as it does on the capacity of the individual.

Four different Ontario forms needed to initiate three different types of legal proceedings were examined: (1) a Plaintiff’s Claim (Form 7A) that an individual would need to start a claim in Small Claims Court; (2) a Form T2-Application about Tenant Rights that an individual would need to seek relief against a landlord before the Landlord and Tenant Board; and (3) an Application (General) (Form 8) and Financial Statement (Property and Support Claims) (Form 13.1) that an individual would need to seek a contested divorce that would include a contested spousal support claim and division of property. With respect to each court form, it was assumed for the purposes of the study that the individual using the court form would also be referring to the relevant government-published guide to completing the specific court form. Both the court forms and the guides examined were those in use as of July 2015.

The results of the study are described in significant detail in the article. Some of the identified sources of challenge include requirements to: generate information that requires expert legal knowledge; infer the meaning of technical legal terms; and move between multiple information sources (including, for example, searching on a website to find a correct court address). Another set of identified challenges was reflected in “distractors” contained in the court forms that risked confusing the reader, such as broad requests for information or the use of unclear terms. Although the associated court guides provided some guidance on the above types of issues, we found that such guidance was often incomplete and also potentially difficult to access given the overall complexity of the guides themselves.

Although proposing comprehensive solutions was beyond the scope of this study, the article concludes with a preliminary discussion of possible solutions, including form redesign, the use of dynamic electronic forms and the provision of unbundled legal services.

Keywords: Literacy, Access to Justice, Court Forms

Suggested Citation

Salyzyn, Amy and Isaj, Lori and Piva, Brandon and Burkell, Jacquelyn, Literacy Requirements of Court Documents: An Underexplored Barrier to Access to Justice (2016). Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2016; Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2017-13. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2945441

Amy Salyzyn (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur St
Ottawa, Ontario K1N6N5
Canada

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5
Canada

Lori Isaj

University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Students ( email )

Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5
Canada

Brandon Piva

University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Students ( email )

Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5
Canada

Jacquelyn Burkell

Faculty of Information and Media Studies ( email )

FIMS and Nursing Building, Rm. 2050
London, Ontario N6A 5B9
Canada
5q9-661-2111 ext 88506 (Phone)

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