While most people have some understanding of what is legal and what isn’t, few understand the law as it is written. Most people will never read statute unless they have to. Even I myself, as an aspiring lawyer, never had taken a glance at legislation prior to law school.
For a long time, I didn’t see a problem with this. After all, as long as people know enough to get on with their lives, what does it matter if they know the difference between a motion, a bill, and a law? What does it matter if they understand how laws work?
Furthermore, there is plenty of secondary information online for those who do want to keep up. The internet is rife with analyses of new and proposed laws, and the legal profession has never been one to shy away from sharing their insights. If one really wanted information, all they have to do is look at the news.
Over time, I’ve come to realize the error of this mindset. There is a widening gap between the people and the laws that governs their lives. And this gap is increasingly exploited to advance political agendas. The spread of such misinformation not only widens the gap between the people and the law, but frustrates the civil discourse necessary for a well-functioning democracy. Left unchecked, this could lead to catastrophic consequences, and erode away at people’s trust in the rule of law.
The Root of the Problem
While the media is an easy punching bag, and proliferation of “fake news” has no doubt played a part in creating this gap, I believe the root of the problem lies in the laws themselves.
Legislation is inaccessible for most people. The words are long, the logic is convoluted, and often, it seems like there are more exceptions than rules. At the end of the day, laws are not drafted for everyday Canadians to read and understand, drafted by politicians (often lawyers), for lawyers. And even then, well-trained professionals often have great difficulty working with them (talk to anyone who’s had to deal with CASL).
The problem is compounded by the fact that there is little incentive for politicians to simplify the law. One invariably wins more votes by proposing and passing new laws, as opposed to making old laws more readable.
Furthermore, making legislation more complicated is often helpful to passing more laws. It’s in the politician’s best interest to make the new laws as wordy as they need to be to fit in exceptions for various voter groups, lobbyists, and campaign sponsors. And when the opposition rears its head, sometimes the easiest way to pass a law is to cram it into an omnibus bill (a proposed law that covers a huge number of diverse, and often unrelated topics). The result is an ever-growing body of law that is ever more difficult for the average person to relate and engage with.
So how do we, as members of the legal profession, solve this problem?
At first glance, the problem might seem insurmountable. After all, when it comes to legislation, much of the inaccessibility is systemic. Unless tremendous reforms take place, laws are going to be drafted the way they’ve always been.
A more feasible solution could be some type of change in education. Often a half-semester course on civics is the only legal education one receives. Needless to say, I don’t think this is sufficient to people get to engage with the law. By instilling some level of legal literacy in through a full-semester course, we can at least ensure that the next generation is better equipped to engage with democratic law-making process.
However, I do think that there are things we can do in to change the way Canadians see legislation, such that it no longer represents a black box that only legal professionals can see into. While this may sound difficult, there are very practical ways for legal professionals to frame the law such that it is relevant to everyday Canadians.
Take Bill-5, the Better Local Government Act, which is set to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council. While the impact of this bill has heavily discussed in the media, too few of these discussions have dealt directly with the actual bill itself.
Or for a more obscure example, the Compassionate Care Act (Bill-3), which mandates the development of a province-wide framework to improve access to palliative care. If passed, this bill could have enormous effects on not only individuals requiring palliative care, but their families, friends, and healthcare workers.
These are only two examples of how legislation can be profoundly relevant to people’s lives. Framed the right way, there is no reason why Canadians won’t want to look into it, and engage more about the legislation, democracy, and the law-making process. It is up to the legal profession to help encourage them. In the next section, I will be providing some recommendations on this can be done.
One of the things I love the most about the legal profession is its willingness to share knowledge. This propensity can be witnessed in the sheer volume of legal content available online. A quick scan across the web reveals an enormous abundance of blogs, articles, interviews, and commentary produced by lawyers from every field.
I myself have benefited immeasurably this culture of “knowledge sharing”, from the summaries I received as a 1L at Osgoode, to the “not-legal advice” I’ve received from my lawyer friends. My recommendation then, is for the legal profession to share more of their knowledge, particularly with individuals not in the profession.
The majority of the content produced by the legal profession is targeted towards other legal professionals, or in many cases, clients. While this makes a ton of sense from a branding / marketing standpoint, I would encourage content creators to consider broadening their audience. This can be done any number of ways.
- Writing with simpler language, avoiding legal jargon where you can.
- Writing content that is more relate-able for non-legal audiences (this medium article does a great job of appealing to small business owners).
- Putting more content through diverse outlets (i.e. online news sites / discussion boards, as opposed to just writing legal blogs or publications).
- Producing content that is more geared towards the layperson(while an opinion piece on the merits of a new bill might be interesting, a simple explanation of what the bill will do is probably more helpful for the average person).
There is often a perceived trade-off between accessibility and quality, as if writing for a less-sophisticated audience means producing lower-quality work. As a content creator, do your best challenge that assumption. and Doing so will not only increase your audience, but also help our fellow citizens connect better with the law.
For Your Consideration
My company, Codify Legal Publishing, is currently working on an initiative to help fill the gap between the people and the law.
Once the user has found laws they’re interested in, they can then place a “tracker” to receive an email update whenever there’s a development, discuss the law with fellow Canadians, or even use the “Contact an MP” feature to send a message to the sponsoring politician.
Within the first 2 days of launch, over 60 users had signed up for various laws. Upon examination, we found that the vast majority of these users were marijuana investors, subscribing to Bill C-45. It was a surprising use case for the platform, one we certainly could not have anticipated.
We hope our new platform will help more and more Canadians connect with the law, and that legal and non-legal professionals alike will find it useful.
To try Codify Updates, click here.
This article was originally published by on the Winkler Institute's Justice Innovation Blog, in September, 2018.