Literacy and the Law

The legal system is complex and confusing. For those with low levels of literacy, it can seem extremely daunting. Some barriers include:

  • lack of awareness of the availability of legal aid
  • not knowing where to find clear and relevant sources of information
  • inability to assess the legal options available
  • inability to recognize a problem as a legal problem

“Canadians cannot fully exercise their rights unless they know about and understand the laws and the justice system that affects them.” – Canadian Bar Association

Many of us will encounter the Canadian legal system to some degree in our lifetimes. For example, at some stage we may buy property, go through a divorce or encounter employment issues.

How can the legal profession and supporting organizations increase accessibility to legal services and improve legal literacy? While there are several approaches, two major efforts are underway. These are public legal education and the increased use of plain language.

Legal Education

There are some very important organizations set up to assist with Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) in Canada. These organizations provide practical legal information to the public. In B.C., there are several including the People’s Law School. The Government of BC also offers Justice Access Centres for family or civil law issues. These offices will help to find information and resources for a variety of legal issues. For more PLEI organizations, see the resources listed below.

Plain Language

Legal language is notoriously difficult to understand. It is even has its own name: Legalese.

“For those who lack legal literacy, the world of lawyers and judges feels just as foreign as an unfamiliar country.” – Archie Zariski

In many situations, the risk for misunderstanding legal phrases is very high. When a police officer cautions you or a judge gives instructions, misunderstanding what was said could mean you give up some of your rights. Thankfully, there has been a strong push towards incorporating plain language in legal settings, both written and spoken. Check out the resources below for legal materials written in plain language.

By providing grounded legal information and materials written in plain language to the public, many organizations are helping to increase legal literacy and accessibility in Canada.


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