Indebted documents: Empirical research on the comprehensibility of the reminder and the court summons in debt collection cases

Every day, thousands of households receive documents concerning debt collection. Unsurprisingly, these documents have a great impact on the lives of many. Do these documents inform readers properly about basics such as the claim, the claimant and what to do when one disagrees? Which literacy skills predict success in understanding this information and how are these results linked to document and task characteristics? In this study two debt collecting documents were examined, the non-judicial reminder and the legal court summons informing the defendant about the claim, about the claimant and about the legal procedure. 83 respondents answered questions about these documents. Their scores have been related to reader characteristics, document characteristics and task characteristics. The reminder was understood by a great majority of the participants. Comprehending information was easy because the document was suitable for the task. In contrast, the court summons enabled readers to understand less than half of the information. This document is characterized by a substantial volume, a style and structure not helping participants to understand basic information. A higher education and a larger vocabulary predicted better success, but prior knowledge about legal debt collection did not help participants to perform better.

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