Making access to the justice system easier
What problem did we need to solve?
In Canada, the federal social safety net consists of:
- Employment Insurance benefits if you lose your job;
- Canada Pension Plan benefits to replace part of your income if you are retired or disabled; and
- Old Age Security benefits for seniors.
If the government denies your application for benefits, then you can appeal. The Social Security Tribunal (SST) is an administrative tribunal. It employs about 80 neutral adjudicators and 200 support staff, holds between 6-8 thousand hearings every year, and decides if the government was right or wrong to withhold benefits.
The laws that set the conditions for entitlement to these benefits date from the middle of the last century. They are extremely complex, and full of technical details. Even lawyers have difficulty mastering them.
Most of the people who appeal don’t have a lawyer. They represent themselves. Justice is not served if the people whose rights are at stake cannot understand the legal process they are involved in. At the SST, we knew that we had to make meaningful improvements in access to our administrative justice system.
How we got started – from the top down
As Chairperson of the SST, I was responsible for setting the strategic direction of the tribunal. When I started in 2018, we made a comprehensive commitment to using plain language in all our communications with the people who were appealing.
To ensure that we acted on our commitment to plain language, we included it in:
- The SST’s strategic plan;
- The annual performance objectives of the tribunal’s leaders and adjudicators;
- Our undertakings to the SST’s stakeholders (lawyer’s groups, unions, NGOs and advocacy organisations); and
- Our public communications, such as our annual progress report and our social media channels.
As the leader of the organisation, I felt it was necessary to make our commitment both public and highly visible. Of course, it carries with the risk that the organisation does not actually deliver on the promises it made to the world. But I think the benefits far outweigh that risk. A public commitment motivates the people who work in the organisation to prove to Canadians that we really care about access to justice. What when we say it, we mean it.
By making our commitment a comprehensive one, we had to change all of our communications products. There are many steps in a legal process before a case gets to a hearing and a decision. So we had to revise hundreds of the forms and letters that people receive before their case is heard. We also had to change the way adjudicators spoke to people in hearings and the way we wrote decisions.
How we kept going – from the bottom up
Leaders in an organisation can talk all they want about plain language. But a culture of accessible communication only takes root from the ground up. For this reason, our training on plain language was focused on building a broad level of internal capacity within the SST. It was not limited to the operational staff and adjudicators, who deal directly with the public. We also included the people who provide indirect support to the hearing process – such as the tribunal’s own lawyers – in our training.
We had no internal expertise in plain language when we started in 2018. So we looked outside. We drew on external resources to deliver training. This included plain language professionals and retired judges.
Once all staff and adjudicators were trained on the basic principles of plain language, we drew on their expertise to develop a suite of tools that are customised to the specific jurisdiction of the SST, and its work. This is where the work came from the ground up. The people working on the front lines were the ones crafting the language we all would rely on.
This resulted in:
- Forms and letters redrafted in plain language;
- Templates for decisions;
- A Style Guide that guides adjudicators in drafting decisions that use plain and inclusive language; and
- A Glossary that the public can use to understand the legal terms that the SST sometimes cannot avoid using.
As a federal tribunal in Canada, the SST provides services in both official languages, French and English. This required us to develop parallel plain language training programs. And of course, all of the products above are available in both English and French.
But how do we know if this is working?
Change that matters is not about airy promises written in corporatespeak. It’s about results for people. This is why we focused heavily on measuring whether our plain language efforts make any difference. We conducted a series of evaluations. These included assessing user needs, and seeking their reactions to our efforts to write clearly.
The evaluations are public. They show that we aren’t perfect, but they also show how we are making progress. The reports below explain the methodologies we used to assess our work:
- Readability assessment 2019
- Enhancing accessibility in written communications: a review of forms and letters for the SST
- An evaluation of how easy it is to read decisions of the Social Security Tribunal
- Evaluation of plain language decision writing
What we have learned from these evaluations is that it is getting easier for SST users to access justice. But the results also tell us that there is still plenty of scope to improve further.
Since 2018 we have introduced a lot of changes to make our legal process more accessible. Building a culture of plain language was one of them. It cost us very little, but has made a big difference in how ordinary people use our service. In terms of cost versus benefit, it has been a massive bargain.
Paul Aterman has spent over 30 years working in Canada’s administrative justice system. He was Chairperson of the Social Security Tribunal of Canada from 2018 until his retirement in March of 2023. Paul serves on the Board of the Center for Plain Language.