This research, funded under the LSC TIG program through a grant to TRLA, conducted in Austin, Texas, by NPC Research on the impact of plain language and translated court documents could be very helpful indeed. (Disclosure: I have been involved in several ways with this project, which included multiple local partners). To quote the Summary of the Report, Introduction of Plain Language Forms with a Spanish Translation in a Family Court Setting Results in Dramatic Reduction in Reported Violations of Orders of Protection:
There has long been strong political support for making sure that governmental information, forms, and websites are written in plain understandable language, and translated into the primary languages of those who use them. But making the needed changes has often been delayed by fears of the costs. Now comes dramatic evidence of the impact on institutions, in this case the courts, of making these changes. Moreover, the new research described here also strongly suggests that cost savings are high enough to more than justify the investments needed.
Specifically, one court was able to reduce the number of returns to court by over 70% by putting such a system in place in domestic violence cases involving people who spoke either English or Spanish. With funding from the Legal Services Corporation, the Travis County Court in Austin, Texas, deployed computer software that generated orders as directed by the judge, and the software automatically used only standardized easy-to-understand English to create the full court orders. Where needed, the software then used approved similarly easy-to-understand Spanish translations of the standardized language to create a translation of the order. (Occasionally the judges requested individualized language. That text was then translated by a qualified interpreter.)
The researchers then studied the rate of return to court for alleged violations for the 6-week period following the order and found the over 70% reduction overall.
They were then able to estimate the total savings from this reduction as over $100,000 over a 3-month period.
In this initial research, no distinction was made between the effect of using plain language and the effect of the Spanish translation.
It is clear that deployment of plain language bilingual documents can have a major impact on both the efficacy and the efficiency of organizations, including courts. The study also showed the value of technological innovation, as championed by the Legal Services Corporation with a special Congressional appropriation, in improving access to justice and the legal system.
As the Full Report states:
For cases proceeding before Spanish translation of the orders was implemented, 12 out of 127 or 10% of protective orders were violated within 6 weeks. After Spanish translation of the orders, 4 out of 146 or 3% of protective orders were violated within 6 weeks. A chi square test was performed and a relationship was found between translation of orders and rate of violation (X2 (2, N = 273) = 7.036, p = .03).
The pre-implementation group had a rate of violation over 3 times that of the group receiving [post-implementation] printed orders. The lead county attorney felt that although the orders were explained to the parties on the day of the hearing, “…it’s really hard for people to remember everything that happens in court once they walk out the door. Stress, nerves, anxiety, etc. contribute to the memory loss…[h]aving a document to refer to, one that they can understand, probably does make a big difference.”
The key table is below:
|Was the Order Violated?|
|Control||112 (90%)||12 (10%)||3||127|
|Program||141 (97%)||4 (3%)||1||146|
As the Summary concludes:
The project confirms that use of plain language and translated court forms has a very highly significant impact upon the rate of violation of domestic violence protective orders. It also strongly suggests that this impact extends to the expenditures of the courts, and indeed other agencies and the parties, for such procedures, as well upon the underlying burdens imposed by violations themselves.
The policy implications are obvious. Broad deployment and additional research, are critical and urgent. Such investments would result in a very speedy return on investment.
(It should be cautioned that a parallel but different experiment in a different court did not show such results. As explained in the full Report, there were numerous other changes taking place in that court, which, it is hypothesized, are likely to have made the before/after comparison invalid.)
I hope that this study will be a springboard to additional research and implementation.
(Note, this post has been updated to link to the newest versions of the Summary and of the Full Report.)