Law students and English students from the University of Arizona are working with the Pima County Superior Court to simplify complex language in instructional packets related to divorce, child custody and other family law proceedings.
In an estimated 82 to 83 percent of new family law filings, one or both parties involved are not represented by an attorney, often because they cannot afford one, said Pima County Superior Court Commissioner Dean Christoffel.
They often are left to fill out complicated legal forms with little or no professional guidance, which can be daunting when the basic instructions are written in legal language that may be difficult for the lay public to understand.
Christoffel, commissioner of Pima County Superior Court's family law bench, recognized the problem and turned to the UA for help.
The result was a for-credit internship program dubbed Simpla Phi Lex (lex is Latin for law; the Greek phiis a play on the University connection).
The interdisciplinary project, in its third semester at the UA, unites the writing skills of English students with the legal savvy of law students. The students work together to make clear, succinct and accurate revisions to the instructions that accompany family law forms.
The students have been working with about 26 packets of text, available to the public through the Pima County Superior Court's self-service center. The goal is to have their changes implemented by the end of this semester.
"The whole idea is to make the instructions approachable, readable and instill a sense in people that they can do this," Christoffel said. "There is so much at risk when people are doing this – their savings, their emotional past life, their children, their children's future."
Christoffel said he hopes to eventually expand the project into other areas of law as well, and to grow partnerships with the University, perhaps including students from the Eller College of Management.
The partnership between the UA and the Pima County Superior Court not only helps the court and the people it serves, it also gives the students valuable cross-disciplinary experience, said the UA's Barbara Atwood, Mary Anne Richey Professor of Law Emerita, who coordinates the project's law students.
"The law students are learning something more about good writing, communication and expression, and the English students are strengthening their writing abilities and learning about writing in a legal context," she said.
The project's three English students, coordinated by University Distinguished Professor of English Jerrold Hogle, do much of the rewriting, while the law students check the legal accuracy of their work and ensure that no essential information was lost in translation. The text is then reviewed by Christoffel and his colleagues.
Larry Hogan, team lead on the project, and a senior majoring in non-fiction creative writing through the UA English department, said his experience with Simpla Phi Lex has piqued a new interest in a technical writing career.
"What I've learned is that writing can be really applicable to the business world. I was amazed that these skills are so needed out in the workplace," said Hogan, who has worked professionally as a teacher, freelance writer, photographer and IT professional.
Hogan also is working to incorporate graphics and visual aids into the instruction packets to help make them even more user-friendly.
Kaytlyn Yrun-Duffy, one of two law students on the project this semester, said working in depth with the legal packets has given her a new understanding of the issues facing those going through divorce or child custody cases, something she first encountered while volunteering for a self-service clinic at the court.
"So many clients would come in so confused. They couldn't figure out what the instructions wanted them to do," said Yrun-Duffy, who is in her third year in the UA's James E. Rogers College of Law. "They're already going through something stressful, and this makes them even more stressed out."
"This project has allowed me to see what the mass population needs and what they're going through," she said.
She said she's also appreciated having the opportunity to work with students from a different discipline.
"It's awesome to work with students from other fields, because we'll be working with experts from different fields all throughout our careers."