Plain Language Forms: Research on Dissolution/Divorce

Recently, I was giving the task of looking into the purpose behind the word choice of ‘dissolution’ in the Dissolution Act of 1973. For certain plain language forms, the committee wanted to know if they could use the word ‘divorce’ instead of ‘dissolution,’ as it would be more clear and understandable to the average reader. This was a frustrating task at first, as there was no clear reason given for why they decided in 1973 to use the word ‘dissolution.’ I finally tracked down the Bill file and was able to find one sentence about why the legislature thought the word dissolution would be more appropriate. The Bill file stated that “divorce, because of its connotations, is named ‘marriage dissolution’ in the act.” Essentially this was the bill that introduced no-fault divorce, and at that time there were still negative associations made with the word ‘divorce.’ To eliminate some of this animosity, the legislature decided to use the word dissolution. The problem that arises with this decision, however, is that some people do not equate dissolution with divorce. The word ‘divorce’ would be more clear and better understood by a larger percentage of the population.

I believe this will be a common problem that arises for plain language form writers. Legal writing is focused on nuance, connotation and cultural context, which may often be at odds with the notion of clear and concise writing. Plain language forms are created to help as much of the public as possible understand the requirements for certain legal actions, thereby increasing the amount of people that can access our justice system. It may be the case that the words the legislature chooses to write in bills and statutes are not the appropriate words to use on certain forms. This is not going to “dumb down” the law, as the law will remain intact. What it will do is allow the public to understand what is asked of them, and help gather facts on forms the public actually understands.