Human rights and the importance of plain language

Human rights and the importance of plain language

By Abigail Taylor

Hard-to-read documents prevent people from understanding their human rights and responsibilities as citizens. On the other hand, plain language supports more accessible and easier to read communications between the government and citizens. Read on to see how plain language improves transparency and clarity to support a healthy, functional and inclusive democracy.

Hands of different skin colours hold up the Earth, celebrating Human Rights Day.

Plain language helps people understand their human rights

Let’s be frank. Human rights – civil, political and social – are technical things. And for good reason. It’s important that the laws protecting us against discrimination, injustice and inequality are written with care, nuance and a degree of minutiae. But let’s not confuse technicality with overly complex legal jargon that everyday people may struggle to understand.

We’ve long believed in the power of clear and simple communication. It helps individuals and governments understand the ‘rules of the game’ of living together in society. In short, we have mutual responsibilities: citizens are responsible for obeying the law, and the government is responsible for protecting citizens using the law.

But in reality, if people can’t understand their rights, they are less likely to be able to access them.

The good news is that when governments communicate our rights in plain language, they’re easier for us to understand. Plain language practitioners, human rights advocates and, increasingly, governments are taking up the fight for clearer communication about our rights and responsibilities.

Plain language helps governments communicate with people

Plain language makes messaging easier to understand because the writing is clear, concise and reader friendly. Shorter, simpler, jargon-free texts help governments and their agencies engage, connect and communicate with much wider audiences.

Take complex issues such as climate, energy or cybersecurity. Many laws, regulations and guidelines about these challenges include technical language. And rightly so. But it is vital to present the science in public documents in simple and clear terms. Governments must do this so that everyday people can understand what our government is doing to tackle these issues and what they are asking us to do.

When confronted with overly technical or scientific language that overwhelms us, it pushes us away from the text. We lose interest and tune out. And that means we’re not engaged with the very issues that need our  attention most urgently! 

Plain language supports healthy democracies

The key idea behind democracy is that all citizens have the power to participate in decision-making about issues that concern them. These can be issues that affect everyone, such as climate change or the cost of living. They can also be issues that affect individuals, such as:

  • sending your kids to a school without enough teachers
  • living in a town that lacks doctors and hospitals
  • knowing someone in an aged care facility who is not being treated well.

When governments use language that everyday people can understand, it allows us to grasp complex ideas and important information, such as:

  • why the climate is changing and what we can do about it
  • how to apply for more time to pay our bills
  • where to go for life-saving medical care
  • how to report aged care facilities that aren’t taking care of their residents.
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Our ability to access what we need in such cases depends on how well we can find, understand and use information the government gives us.

Plain language can help governments communicate clearly with people who might be non-native English speakers, have disabilities or low literacy levels. People have the right to information they can understand, and governments have a responsibility to communicate clearly with everyone.


Plain language is finding its way into governments worldwide

Some governments already have laws that ensure their citizens have access to clear communications.

For example, the United States passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010. This act requires US federal agencies to use plain language in all public communications. Closer to home, New Zealand passed the Plain English Act 2022 to improve public service outreach and trust. It applies from 21 April 2023, so New Zealanders can now expect all online and written public content to be more accessible and easier to read.

Australia doesn’t have a dedicated plain language act, yet. But the government already requires its agencies to communicate clearly with the public, using plain language. For example, Services Australia reworked its website to make its material accessible to the diverse range of users that visit the site every day. With so many people visiting to find out about critical government services, it’s important to make their experience as efficient as possible.

In Europe, EU commissioners know that hard-to-read language is a barrier to democratic participation and citizen access to the public sector. They see plain language as an important prerequisite for interacting with the government or democracy online, such as:

  • accessing information about government services
  • filling in forms
  • voting.

Every year, the EU Commission holds a Clear writing for Europe conference. In 2023, the theme was: Supporting European democracy and transparency through clear language, which highlights the important role that plain language plays in enabling democracy.

There was a similar message coming out of the 2023 PLAIN conference – where it was reported that plain language policies are linked to improved and more accessible communications between the state and citizens.


Plain language improves more than just the quality of our communications

Plain language improves transparency, clarity and trust in public communications. By improving public communications, people can better understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens. And when people understand their rights and responsibilities they can participate in the democratic process. This helps individuals contribute to a healthy, functional and inclusive democracy. All through the simple act of communicating more clearly.

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If you’re looking to strengthen your writing skills to ensure your communication with citizens is crystal clear, try one of our workshops for government clients, including: 


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