Stating it Simply: A Comparative Study of the Quantitative Readability of Apex Court Decisions from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK, and the USA
41 Pages Posted: 28 May 2021 Last revised: 30 Jul 2021
Date Written: May 26, 2021
Even though common law courts create and articulate the law within their decisions, we know surprisingly little about the quantitative readability levels of any single national apex court’s decisions, and even less about how any one apex court’s readability levels compare to those of other similar apex courts. This article offers new data and analysis that significantly reduces our blind spots in these areas, by reporting the results of an original empirical study of the readability of judicial decisions released in 2020 from the apex courts of five English-speaking jurisdictions.
The article draws on applied linguistics theory and Natural Language Processing techniques in order to provide both uni- and multi-dimensional readability scores for the 233 judicial decisions (comprising more than 3 million words of text) that form the corpus of this study. The results show that readability levels vary by approximately 50% between the most- and least-readable jurisdictions (USA and Australia, respectively). The article then analyzes the data comparatively in order to determine whether institution- or jurisdiction-specific factors are capable of explaining readability variances between the different courts. The article concludes that certain comparative factors, such as the average panel size used by each court, and the ratios of both former law professors and women who sit on panels in each jurisdiction, are capable of explaining 23.7% of the total variances in readability scores. These findings may help judicial and executive branch decision-makers to better understand how their court’s decisions stack up against other courts in terms of readability, and offer insights as to how readability levels could be enhanced.
Keywords: readability, corpus linguistics, NLP, apex courts, natural language processing, judicial decisions, Flesch-Kincaid, SMOG, High Court of Australia, HCA, Supreme Court of Canada, SCC, SCOTUS, Constitutional Court of South Africa, ZACC, Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, UKSC
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