Communicating law and research in plain language takes time but is always worth it

Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze en Ilona van Opdorp-van de Kooi smiling

How can we make the law and legal sciences accessible and understandable for the largest possible audience? It's a question that is always relevant and crosses the minds of many legal professionals. Recent media appearances by law influencers Julia Mekkes and Marcia Geerts on this issue are a great example of understandable law. Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze, criminologist and doctoral candidate at Erasmus School of Law, as a Face of Science of the KNAW, is also committed to making research understandable and accessible to a wide audience, striving to reach society through various channels. Ilona van Opdorp-van de Kooi, as a CLI fellow, is dedicated to developing visual literacy among students at Erasmus School of Law. Critical reading and creating images, just like critical reading and creating texts, are essential for making the law more accessible and understandable.

In the pursuit of accessible law, the way of communicating, namely connecting with the target audience or 'who is the reader?', is key. The use of plain language, visual language, and technology can help make texts more accessible.

Law affects everyone

Law consciously and unconsciously plays a role in everyone's life. That is precisely why, as Koops-Geuze also believes, it is important to make the law and legal science as understandable and accessible as possible: "Think about human rights; the fact that you can express your opinions to a certain extent at work and at home is related to freedom of speech. And health law; the fact that as a patient (at least in the Netherlands) you have the right to be informed about the pros and cons of certain treatments you have to undergo in the hospital."

Although the law affects everyone, "laws and empirical legal research sometimes pass people by due to difficult wording," says Koops-Geuze. "Misunderstanding in relation to (the making of) laws, legal procedures, and research can lead to distrust, misinformation, or reduced support for the judiciary and ultimately, the government as well. That is something that certainly deserves our special attention in 2023. Better disseminating the most recent legal knowledge indirectly contributes to improving 'access to justice' and can also help make citizens more resilient against injustice and misconduct. Additionally, it is also crucial to clearly communicate to policy and practice workers what they can do with research results and to genuinely motivate them to take action."

Understandable language

So how do we make the law understandable? "Concepts and empirical legal research are not always easy to explain in everyday language, especially for citizens who seemingly do not deal with the law. Legal terminology can be confusing, and the importance of empirical legal research is not always emphasized enough. It can not hurt to explain complex legal issues or important empirical research results more often using everyday examples or formulating them in a few understandable and engaging points ("plain language"). If that does not work, try to think about how you would explain it to an elderly neighbour or a younger person in secondary school, advises Koops-Geuze. "Generative Artificial Intelligence can help you with this nowadays, think of the chatbot of the search engine Bing or ChatGPT. You can use these for help requests such as coming up with everyday examples and rewriting texts," argues Opdorp-van de Kooi. "However, keep in mind that these chatbot applications are fuelled by data, including your data, so consider first whether the questions you ask or the information you input should be available to a wide audience."

Awareness of visual material

Not only clear and understandable language but also the use of visual material can make law much more accessible, explains Van Opdorp-van de Kooi: "Certain legal texts, judgments, and legal issues can be quite complex even for legal professionals, let alone for the average citizen. The use of visuals such as infographics, animations, icons, timelines, and flowcharts can be a means to make the law more accessible." According to Van Opdorp-van de Kooi, there are already many practical examples of this in education, government, employers, and various other organizations.

With an increase in visuals in law, there should also be more attention to the potential pitfalls of using images, according to Van Opdorp-van de Kooi: "The possibilities seem endless, but in order to understand, analyse, and use visual information, the reader or creator of the image needs to be visually literate. How critically do we look at visual material? Do we also question what we do not see? In reality, various cognitive processes, conscious or unconscious, play a role in the interpretation of visual material. In short, images can make the law more accessible, but that depends on the specific image and the level of visual literacy of the reader."

To fully leverage the opportunities that visuals offer, there are several areas where progress can be made: "We need to pay more attention to images and visual literacy throughout the entire legal domain. And it starts with education. That's why visual literacy education is being developed from the CLI project to make students at Erasmus School of Law more visually literate. Additionally, collaboration between designers and legal professionals is important, and more research on image usage needs to be conducted and then shared and published."

PhD student
Ilona van Opdorp-van de Kooi, researcher visual literacy within the legal domain
More information

The Community for Learning & Innovation is a collaboration of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Here you can find more information about the project 'Improving visual literacy of law and criminology students'.

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