How can we make the civil justice system work better for people?

Stanford Legal Design Lab’s Justice Innovation project gathers the needs, ideas, and methods for improving how the legal system works & the impact it has on people.

The Legal Design Lab runs ongoing research, workshops, classes, and tech development on justice innovation. This site is made for people from courts, legal aid groups, foundations, universities, and community groups who are interested in a more human-centered justice system.


Top 8 Areas for Justice Innovation

What projects can make the justice system more accessible, equitable, and effective for people in a legal crisis?

These are the 8 target areas of innovation that our Lab believes can reduce the justice gap & improve people’s outcomes.

Read more about these 8 areas of work, and find out what you could be building or supporting.

Recent Posts

Guides for Justice Innovation

Stanford Legal Design Lab has guides, templates, and examples to help courts, government agencies, and legal aid teams improve their systems.
Use these resources to jumpstart your work making the legal system work better for people.

What are the projects, methods, outcomes, and research strategies about justice innovations? Our Reading List has a mixture of academic and practitioner articles to dive deep into doing innovation well, and building from past work.

Go to the Legal Design Lab Guide to creating great legal help websites on the Legal Help Online Dashboard. The Dashboard can help website admins, evaluators, authors, engineers, and designers.

Go to the Court Summons design guide to help your court or legal team create a document that will be supportive, accessible, and empowering.

Go to our User Testing Justice Innovation guide to find practical methods for getting community input into what you should build, how to build it, and whether it is working.

Explore datasets from courts, government agencies, social media, and beyond to use in developing new justice innovations.

Go to the Court Forms Evaluation & Redesign Guide to understand if your forms are user-friendly and effective, and how to make them work better for people.

What are Justice Innovations?

Justice innovations are programs, policies, technology, and infrastructure that can make a better, people-centered justice system. They increase the accessibility, equity, and social benefits of the justice system.

They reduce the justice gap that many people currently experience, where they cannot get advice, services, or guidance to resolve their civil and criminal legal problems — and thus face evictions, garnishments, money judgments, jail time, and insecurity.

Justice Innovations could be relatively small interventions, to change how court documents or legal aid explainers are designed. Or they could be large, systemic interventions like launching a new right to counsel, getting more funding for legal aid, or building new collaborative housing courts.

Read more about what interventions could improve the US justice system. Justice Innovations do not include just ‘technology’ interventions. They could be communications, services, products, technology, or policy interventions. This post walks through the pyramid illustration above, going through the different orders of design.

Why work on Justice Innovations?

A better justice system can improve people’s stability, mobility, and outcomes around housing, money, family, and employment.

We need human-centered justice systems that can respond to trends that are happening with our state courts, legal aid groups, and people’s needs.

  • Over 75% of people in civil state court matters don’t have a lawyer representing them. See this report from the National Center for State Courts.
  • Increased numbers of robo-filed lawsuits mean that more people are getting sued for debts that they may not even owe. See The Pew Charitable Trust’s report on the rise of robo-filing and changing landscape of state courts.
  • People’s trust in state courts is declining. See the poll and survey results from the National Center for State Courts‘ State of the State Courts.

Researchers and practitioners have identified many breakdowns in the US’ civil legal system:

Low Awareness of legal issues, services, and the court system.
How can we make people more aware of the services that can help them with the difficulties they’re having with their housing, debts, family, and other problems?
How can we increase the uptake of free and affordable services to help resolve these problems?

Low Participation rates in court cases, especially for housing and money problems.
This problem is often phrased in terms of “high default rates”. When a person doesn’t participate in a court case, they face big penalties when they lose by default, including their wages being garnished, sheriffs setting them out from their home, warrants for their arrest, or other life-changing penalties.

High Failure rates in people’s ability to present their information, stories, and claims to the court in a way that meets the court’s (or individual judge’s) standards.
This occurs with people’s inability to correctly file motions and other paperwork with courts, their inability to present claims and stories at court hearings, and their inability to deal with the other party’s requests and claims.

High rates of unequal settlements and court decisions, in which people who don’t have lawyers are getting court outcomes that have unfavorable terms — compared to people & companies who do have lawyers.
How do we make sure that all people have the law applied fairly to their situation, even if they cannot afford a lawyer to represent them?

High variability rates in court & judges’ decisions, including about how they apply the law, how they run their courtroom, and how they interact with people who don’t have a lawyer.
How do we ensure that there is consistent & equitable application of the law to people’s situations? How do we ensure that all judges and court officers are following the law & court rules, especially in regard to people who do not have a lawyer?

Growing distrust in courts among people, with surveys showing that more people have lower levels of confidence in the US justice system and state courts.
How do we increase procedural and substantive justice in the courts, and strengthen the relationships between people and the justice system (and broader government institutions)?

Justice Journey
When a person has a problem with their housing, finances, work, or family, they might seek legal help & go on a ‘justice journey’ to protect their rights and resolve their problem. But many aren’t able to get help or navigate this process.

The Stanford Legal Design Lab works on improving the civil justice system, in order to improve people’s housing, finances, and family.

Are people able to use the legal system to protect their rights, resolve their problems, and achieve greater stability?

The Legal Design Lab focuses on Justice Innovation to impact 4 outcomes: people’s stability and security, their empowerment in legal and government systems, their legal capability, and the quality of justice they receive.

Impact 1:
Increase People’s Housing, Financial & Social Stability

When a person has a legal problem, they’re at risk of a single issue spiraling into a life crisis that can lead to more poverty and inequality.

An eviction lawsuit, debt collection action, domestic violence incident, or traffic ticket can destabilize a person & their family.

Justice innovations can help resolve these problems and prevent the problem from spiraling into major life crises.

These innovations can increase problem resolution, and improve housing, family, financial, and educational outcomes.

Impact 2:
Empower People to Use Their Rights & Participate in Justice

People often don’t participate in the civil justice system, even when they have protections & defenses.

When a person doesn’t show up to court or answer a lawsuit, they’re at risk of big consequences like money judgments, wage garnishments, loss of home, and bench warrants.

Justice innovations can help them use the legal system to assert their rights to protect their money, housing, family, and safety.

Innovations can decrease default judgments, increase uptake of services, and increase the assertion of rights.

Impact 3
Build People’s Legal Capability and Equitable Access

Many people don’t feel they’re able to use the legal system, and can’t afford to hire a lawyer to help them navigate it. Justice innovations can build people’s knowledge about what legal rules & options apply to them.

Innovations can increase their ability to make strategic decisions.

Innovations can give more people more confidence that they can use the system — that they are capable to engage with the system. This is particularly important to include historically excluded groups in the justice system, so they can use it equally.

Impact 4:
Improve the Quality of Justice People Receive

Even if people do engage with the justice system, they might not have just experiences or outcomes. Justice innovations can increase procedural justice and substantive justice.

For procedural justice, innovations can make the system more transparent, trustworthy, and responsive to people.

For substantive justice, innovations can ensure that the law is fairly applied to a person’s situation.

What are the best ways to prevent evictions?

Our Lab works runs the Eviction Innovation website & leads national networks on eviction prevention along with the National League of Cities.

If you are focused on housing-related justice innovations, the Eviction Innovation site has guidance, resources, and data to help.

Come explore ways that courts, legal aid groups, city governments, and others can prevent evictions.

Legal Design Lab’s Justice Innovation Work

Our Lab has been working over the past 9 years on improving the justice system through improved designs, services, and tech.

Explore some of our examples & guides on how to do justice innovation yourself.

Innovation Peer Cohorts

Working with the National League of Cities, we have led 2 peer cohorts on improving eviction, landlord engagement, and emergency rental assistance systems, helping over 35 cities. See the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab.

Innovation Landscapes

The Legal Design Lab maintains a comprehensive repository of programs and policies to address the eviction crisis, for policymakers and court officials to use. See our Eviction Innovation site.

Efiling & Forms Modernization

Our team is working with the Center on the Legal Profession and 6 state courts on the Filing Fairness Project. The FFP is working to modernize and simplify state court forms and filing, so people can access the justice system.

Court Documents & Visual Guides

We work with courts and legal aid groups to create user-friendly visual explainers of the law. These include new eviction summons, traffic court explainers, and eviction guides. Explore them here.

Legal Help Websites

We have made one-off legal help websites for Eviction FAQs, for courts’ self-help centers, and for legal aid groups. We also have guides on Legal Help Online Dashboard for others to make excellent websites.

Texting Reminders & Coaches

We have built Wise Messenger to allow courts and legal aid groups to remind people of court deadlines, conduct online intake, and coach people through long legal journeys.

Examples of our Lab’s Justice Innovation Projects

The Legal Design Lab is working on many interventions that can increase access to justice. Here are some of our most recent examples of justice innovation interventions.

Legal Help FAQ platform for eviction

In Spring 2020, we built a national Legal Help FAQ platform, with 50-state coverage, of renters’ rights and protections during the COVID-19 emergency.

Our team did extensive legal research and assembled a national network of housing law experts to be able to present, in plain language, if renters could be evicted, how much time they had to pay rent, and what new protections they might have in court. It also has a national database of local legal aid groups, court self-help sites, emergency rental programs, and other services that we could connect renters to in each state.

The Legal Help FAQ platform was built with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Wise Messenger for SMS reminders and hotlines

The Lab has created Wise Messenger, a platform to set up automated text messages from a court, or other legal organization to their users. We are studying whether procedural notifications by SMS improve people’s appearance rates at hearings, appointments, and other important legal events.

If your court or office would be interested in sending automated text reminders and procedural notifications, please let us know here, and we’ll be in contact.

Schema Markup Generator

Get Legal Help info to better appear on Internet Search Results

When people search online for contact information, hours, and procedure for your organization — make sure that they find your website and the help information on it. By applying markup to the back-end of your website, search engines like Google, Yahoo, and others will better be able to recognize that your organization should be featured high on search results.

Our Lab has made a tool so that you can easily create this markup, and then paste it onto your website’s backend code.

Eviction Defense website guide for Arizona

Our team, working with university, court, and foundation partners in Arizona, built an Eviction Self-Help website for tenants in Pima County to understand their rights, prepare documents, and get court hearing information for their upcoming eviction hearing.

We are currently running a randomized-control study in which tenants who have been sued for eviction, are sent fliers our team designed to let them know about their rights and the website. Then once they come to the website, we help them identify what defenses or counterclaims they might have, prepare an Answer or other forms, and find their case docket and timing information.

We will be publishing more about the design of this website (and the larger mailer and study design), and the outcomes of the website’s engagement and effectiveness levels.

Visual Guides to Legal Process

Give people a birds-eye view of what to do when appearing before a traffic court — and how to request relief from fines and fees.

The Legal Design Lab team created these open-source designs in our classes and now makes them widely available for replication and reuse. For example, we made these Traffic Court visuals in Design For Justice: Traffic Court, with our partners East Bay Community Law Center and NLADA. The visual designs for posters and handouts have been piloted in Alameda County, California. They were particularly created for courts that have recently introduced ‘Ability to Pay’ procedures.

If you would like to adapt these to your court or clinic, to help litigants understand their pleading options and how to request ‘Ability to Pay’ evaluation, please write to us. We will be happy to help you adapt these flowcharts and visuals to your context.

How can we make the legal system more accessible, user-friendly & just?

This is a project of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School.

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