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Case Study #3

Empowering Survivors: Creating a clear guide to sexual assault prosecution

(See complete document here)




A provincial prosecution service wanted to improve a brochure on sexual assault prosecution that the intended audience disliked.


They worked with a public research firm to understand what the audience disliked and what they wanted from such a brochure. They then worked with a plain language consultant to create a new document that responded to the audience’s feedback.


The resulting brochure was in such high demand that the prosecution service could not print enough. It distributed 30,000 cards with a link to the online brochure. Many organizations shared the brochure on their websites.


The brochure is currently being updated due to changes in criminal law.


Full case study


The client: Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service 


The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service (PPS) prosecutes charges laid under the Criminal Code of Canada and under Nova Scotia laws. The service includes about 80 Crown Attorneys who handle about 40,000 cases in Nova Scotia every year.


The challenge: Turn a brochure the intended audience hated into one that they love


The prosecution service gave me 2 things to work with:

  • a fully-designed and printed 6-panel brochure

  • the results of focus group testing of that brochure


What the prosecution service wanted from the brochure 


The prosecution service wanted the brochure to do these things:

  • Give survivors of criminal sexual violence information particular to sexual violence prosecutions rather than general criminal prosecutions.

  • Answer questions that survivors ask most often.

  • Tell survivors that they have a key role to play in the prosecution process.

  • Tell survivors that they will be supported during the prosecution process.

  • Deliver the information in a reassuring way without sugar-coating.


What the focus groups participants wanted 


The focus group participants represented the intended audience for the brochure. Each focus group participant fit into one of 3 categories:

  • women aged 18 and older. Women are far more likely than men to the targets of criminal sexual violence.

  • survivors of criminal sexual violence

  • those who provide direct services to survivors of criminal sexual violence


 This is what the focus group participants wanted out of the brochure 

  • a victim-centered approach

  • language that is easy to understand

  • a glossary of legal terms

  • a list of victim services organizations and their contact information

  • reasons why a survivor of sexual violence would hire their own lawyer

  • possible outcome of a sexual violence prosecution

  • a realistic timeline for the prosecution process


Using plain language to meet both the needs of the PPS and the intended audience 


One of the first tenets of plain language is to address the reader and create a relationship with them. So, we decided to change the title of the brochure from Sexual Assault Prosecution Explained to A Survivor’s Guide to Sexual Assault Prosecution. We also replaced “victim” with “survivor” throughout the brochure. We did this because “survivor” is an empowering word.


As you scroll through A Survivor’s Guide to Sexual Assault Prosecution, you will see how we met the needs of the intended audiences and incorporated plain language principles.


The International Plain Language Federation’s definition of plain language is the following:


A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.


Making information easy to find 


We structured the content in a way that placed the information that is most important to the intended audience appeared first.


We used headings in the form of a question that were clear reflections of what the intended readers wanted to know. We then put those exact headings into a table of contents.


Finally, along with Graphic Designer Etta Moffatt ,  we created an infographic so readers could see the whole prosecution process and their place in it at a glance.


Making information easy to understand 


The biggest complaint the focus group participants had was that the original brochure read like “it [was] written by lawyers for lawyers.” To remedy that, we placed definitions of unfamiliar legal terms in call-out boxes as close to the first appearance of such a term in the text.


We reduced the reading grade level of the brochure from 12 to 6.6. We achieved this through tried-and-true plain language techniques:

  • writing in the active voice

  • using familiar words and short sentences

  • removing unfamiliar terms where possible and defining them where necessary

  • using positive statements rather than negative ones as much as possible.


Making the information easy to act on 


We told the readers about concrete actions they could take, like these:

  • when to hire their own lawyer

  • who can ask to testify via CCTV or from behind a screen

  • what to include in their testimony

  • when and how to write a Victim Impact Statement


Making sure the intended readers agree that the brochure is in plain language 


We tested the new version of the brochure with the same focus group participants. The reaction was mainly positive. They said [find some quotes]. They also had some further suggested which we added before we finalized the text and design.


The result 


PPS initially printed 1,400 copies of the brochure: 800 in English, 500 in French, and 100 in Arabic. But demand was so high that they could not afford to print all the copies people wanted. Instead, they printed 30,000 cards containing a link to the online brochure and distributed these to the following organizations:

  • police

  • transition houses

  • advocacy groups

  • universities

  • Department of Justice Victim Services centres


They found that some of these organizations linked to the online brochure from their own websites.


This brochure was first published in 2018. We are currently working to update it as criminal law has changed in the meantime.

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