Plain language requires drafting documents so readers will understand the intended message. Nationally and internationally, lawmakers are turning to plain language more often. Legislatures, regulators, and courts alike are voluntarily implementing plain language into their operations or requiring plain language from others. As a result, attorney general offices face plain language on three fronts: (1) deciding whether to voluntarily adopt plain language, (2) complying with plain language laws, including those that cover attorney general documents, and (3) enforcing plain language laws.
The Case for Voluntarily Using Plain Language
Voluntarily adopting plain language might yield extensive benefits for local, state, and federal governments.
Internal benefits include improved coordination between units, better employee morale and productivity, and increased efficiency. Studies show plain language helps employees read faster, find what they need more quickly, and understand documents better. Anecdotal evidence shows benefits too. For example, when a division of General Electric converted to plain language contracts, it negotiated contracts 60% quicker.
Externally, plain language increases public faith in the government, improves access to justice, decreases citizen complaints, and saves costs. In several instances, after agencies converted to plain language, citizen complaints and questions decreased 90% or more; for some agencies, the decrease was so significant the agency reassigned employees to different units. Plain language is more understandable to citizens with limited English proficiency or literacy skills and is cheaper to translate. Other cost savings come from writing more concisely. In one instance, a state agency saved $25,000 in postage by using plain language to condense mailings. Perhaps the most important benefit is increased citizen compliance with the law or with instructions. In short, plain language helps citizens know what to do, which increases compliance, decreases disputes, and decreases enforcement costs. When a hospital incorporated plain language into its billing statements, patient payments increased 80%.
Plain language can improve notices, websites, manuals, letters, and any kind of public-facing or internal document.
Laws That Require Government Documents Use Plain Language
The recently-completed first survey of United States plain language laws revealed at least 193 laws that require plain language in public sector documents.1 Some of these laws cover documents drafted by attorney general offices, like ballot initiative summaries or explanations of citizen rights. Most of these laws apply to documents drafted by other agencies. Still, attorney general offices will likely be defending those documents against any allegations of noncompliance. The scope of documents covered is enormous, from election ballots and notices of proposed rulemaking, to regulations and administrative hearing notices, to environmental and budget reports. Just about any public-facing document an executive agency produces could be covered. And more plain language laws issue every year.
Penalties vary but can be as serious as a Due Process violation or invalidating the government action. 2
How Attorney General Offices Enforce Plain Language Laws
Some plain language laws cover private sector contracts while charging attorney general offices with enforcement. Most commonly these laws are consumer protection laws focused on non-negotiable contracts between large companies and individuals. They might cover insurance policies, leases, waivers, loans, or other kinds of consumer contracts. Attorney general offices may have responsibility for reviewing contracts for compliance, prosecuting violations, and choosing from an assortment of penalties including denying access to the market or pursuing monetary damages.
Apart from enforcement, attorney general offices can support compliance through other methods. They can increase awareness of these laws and provide resources on how drafters can comply.
Plain language is spreading across many areas of law while also becoming a tool to improve transparency, public faith in government, and access to justice. Attorney general offices should consider training employees in plain language. It is important for attorney general offices to be aware of plain language laws, what documents they cover, and what they require.
- Michael Blasie, United States Plain Language Laws: The Laws Revolutionizing Transactional and Governmental Document Design (Wolters Kluwer, 2023), https://law-store.wolterskluwer.com/s/product/us-plain-language-laws-vitallaw-3r/01t4R00000P3sNZQAZ.
- Id.; Michael Blasie, The Rise of plain Language Laws, 76 U. Miami L. Rev. 447 (2022), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3941564\.