Why good communication matters

This week, on the 21-22 March the National Access to Justice Conference takes place in Melbourne. The conference is a joint initiative of the Law Institute of Victoria, National Pro Bono Resource Centre and Law Council of Australia and for the first time will focus on the issues of communication and how better communication can improve access to justice.

Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director Joh Kirby is speaking at the conference in plenary session one: making the law understood. Here Joh tells us why good communication matters in the law and legal sector.

Low levels of literacy and the impact it has on people’s lives is evident in recent preliminary findings released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics looking at literacy and numeracy skills (4228.0 – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia 2011-2012). The survey found that 44% of Australians aged 15 to 74 (7.3 million) had literacy skills at the lowest levels. This makes it difficult for them to fully understand complex or lengthy texts where a level of deduction is required.

A previous survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2006 showed similar results (though based on slightly different criteria). The 2006 survey (4228.0 – Adult literacy and life skills survey, summary results, Australia 2006) found that 46% of Australians did not have the prose literacy levels to navigate the complexities of modern life.

This group are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to understanding the complexities of legal information and the legal system. Work done by the foundation goes some way to addressing this issue – not only by developing resources that speak directly to this audience through clear, concise writing and good design, but by also providing training and resources such as the Better Information Handbook which provides guidance on how to produce high quality community legal information.

Better communication that considers the skills of the audience does make a difference. But the reality is that community legal information can only go some way to addressing access to justice issues. It is most effective for those whose skills allow them to assess and take control of their situation. What these surveys show us is that for some members of our community this may not be possible, even with the best quality information. One thing that is certain is that this issue and more are bound to cause much debate at the conference this week.

Joh Kirby is Executive Director of Victoria Law Foundation and a member of the organising committee for the Access to Justice Conference. In 2010 Joh received a Churchill Fellowship to examine best practice in community legal information. The foundation is a supporter of the conference.

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