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An International R&D Community for Better Justice Innovations

Margaret Hagan, Aug 16, 2022

Building a network that’s researching, designing, and evaluating what works to increase access to justice

Earlier this summer I was lucky to spend a Saturday in conversation with Professor Monica Palmirani & her research group CIRSFID at the University of Bologna.

It was a pleasant afternoon talking about projects & giving feedback on early-stage initiatives. Especially because of COVID, it has been hard to build up international (or even inter-university) connections about what our different legal labs and research groups are working on.

It turns out that there was a surprising amount of overlap between our work at Stanford Legal Design Lab and the CIRSFID group in Bologna.

Both of our groups are focused on an overarching theme:

How do we empower more people to participate in the government systems meant to benefit and protect them? In particular, how do we increase people’s ability to understand, use, and participate in the legal system to resolve housing & finance problems?

For us at Stanford Legal Design Lab, we have been very focused on people’s participation in the United States’ state court and legal aid systems. For people facing life problems around housing, debt, employment, and other situations — can we increase their participation in this legal help system to resolve the problem and move forward with their life?

Parallels in A2J innovation from California to Italy

Professor Palmirani’s group just launched a project with very similar themes, in another jurisdiction’s context. They have launched a 5-year research project on digital participation in government. This focus aligns with ours at the Legal Design Lab — and it turns out our past projects have as well.

Building data standards for justice systems

The Bologna group has already established infrastructure around legislation and NLP, through their data standards of Akoma Ntoso & Legal Document ML to capture legislation in standardized notation.

This parallels our Stanford’s group focus on data standards:

It turns out that in our different regional contexts, both of our research groups have made data standards infrastructure projects a central part of our work. These standards project lay the ground for more groups to develop new solutions & intelligent applications.

That said, there’s another — less technical, more design — theme that we also have both aligned on in Bologna & California.

Legal Design in the Courts for User Empowerment

Professor Palmirani’s group in Bologna has turned to legal design as another theme for innovation and research. Their group has partnered with judges in Sicily, to do user research, create new designs, and evaluate them. The challenge they’re tackling through legal design is this:

  • There is new legislation regionally, that creates opportunities for people struggling with debt.
  • Many people do not necessarily know about this new policy and related programs, that could help them pay their debts down & get relief.
  • How can the courts increase awareness of this new set of rights and services? And how can they empower more people to navigate this system strategically, to find relief?
  • Can this intervention, if it helps people Engage -> Motivate -> Act on the law, ultimately get people to better outcomes? The hypothetical chain goes as follows: People use the law to relieve their debt, because the guide has helped them find and use the legal system→ They are cleared of significant financial stress → They get stabilized with their house, car, family, and job → They have better physical health, mental health, and quality of life — as does their family.
The judges’ challenge to the R&D group: can you make the law clear for citizens?

This project in Bologna/Siciliy parallels our Stanford projects in which we’ve been working with courts and city governments on rental relief, eviction diversion initiatives, and moratoria. Like in the Italian example, there also have been recent roll-outs of new laws, assistance programs, and court policies. We have been working on the outreach and service design, with similar goals to our European counterparts.

The Bologna group has created several design interventions that they are now going to evaluate in the Sicily context. They have created a visual explainer book, along with online videos, that onboard people to their options to deal with debt. The goals of the explainers are as follows:

  • Can they engage more members of the public to know about this law, and motivate them to take action if it’s applicable to them?
  • Can they help a person understand the 3 legal pathways they have to deal with a debt — and to make a strategic choice among the 3?
  • Can they make the most commonly applicable pathway very approachable and clear to the person? With the use of process maps, human stories, and staged information — can they keep a person engaged, with a sense of control, and a sense of dignity?

The Design Patterns & Strategies for Legal Empowerment

Their group of lawyers and designers have created visual guides that they will test.

My notes on the design patterns in use by the Bologna group, with their debt guides

The guides were created with many visual and messaging strategies, meant to increase engagement, motivation, and action:

  • Process Map and a Choice Matrix. These 2 visual patterns are commonly used in legal design, to show how a person can navigate a system, and how to weigh strategic choices against each other. The Bologna group made a color-coded procedural map that shows the steps as a timeline with simplified steps. Then a person can go from this high-level overview into detail. They can also see in tables about exactly when the law applies and when it doesn’t.
  • Representations of many kinds of local people, to show the potential users of the law that it is for them. The designers showed distinct ‘Personas’ as visual characters in the guide. This includes a variety of gender, ages, abilities, family situations, and backgrounds.
  • Messages around dignity, normalcy, and support. The language and visuals reinforce the message that debt and money problems are normal. That a person shouldn’t be ashamed or feel guilty about them.
  • Framing the legal system as a service rather than a punishment. There is also deliberate messaging that debt is not criminal. This is not a trial, and it doesn’t have to be adversarial or punitive. Rather, the focus is on collaborative service and problem-solving, with the legal system as a service rather than a punishment.
  • Visual metaphors around weight & uplift. At the same time as emphasizing ‘this is normal’, the guide also acknowledges how burdensome the situation is for a person. It literally shows people being weighed down with their debt problems. And it uses the hot-air balloon as a visual metaphor throughout the guide to communicate uplift. As a person navigates the path towards relief, the balloon lifts up.
  • Emphasizing & clarifying choices. The guide shows the 3 legal procedures a person could use for debt relief as 3 different hot air balloons. They’re colored differently, based on difficulty & accessibility. It can let a person visualize which one would be best for them to use, to take a justice journey. At the same time as the guide presents the 3 pathways, it doesn’t present them as equal. They use indicators to guide people to the most commonly relevant and the least burdensome path.
  • Remixing Cultural Symbols. The legal design team discovered that symbols from a popular card game in Sicily could be adapted for the guide. They could use these familiar, local symbols — swords, vases, spears, coins — to represent different system parts and people. They chose these symbols specifically because playing cards is a familiar experience for making strategic, careful choices. Just like in the legal system, you have to be thinking about your goals and steps. Also, these symbols help frame the lawyer as the ‘protector’ rather than the enemy. This can help let the person see the lawyer as someone who can help them, rather than someone to fear.
  • Building Familiarity with the Different Professionals. One problem to deal with is that all of the different ‘system people’ can all seem the same to a new user of a system. The guide makes a point to differentiate who all these different support and decision-maker experts are: the lawyer, the accountant, the trustee, the judge. These should lessen people’s fear of these ‘experts’, and also help them ask the right questions to the right people.
  • Messages that set expectations. Though much of the guide is emphasizing that the legal system is approachable and engaging — the designers have also realized that too much of this language might make people think that navigating the system will be easy, or they will have complete support from the professionals to do it. This might then lead to frustration & burnout when they find that they will still have to do many tasks, make hard choices, and come to high-stakes meetings, negotiations, and hearings. Even if there are people to help them, the process will still be hard. It will take effort and dedication. The guide emphasizes this along with the other, more encouraging messages above.

This Justice Innovation Work Can Be Networked

This effort in Sicily has been amazing to watch. The Bologna group will have more to report about the effectiveness of their Engage -> Motivate -> Act theory of change.

In the meantime, there is much to learn for other folks (myself included) who are working on the research & design of new justice system interventions, meant for legal empowerment. Like the Bologna group, my Lab has also been busy working on new guides, websites, outreach fliers, and maps to help institutions better engage & empower the public. When I talked with Professor Palmirani and her team, I realized that we had been working in a parallel way but had much to learn from each other.

In particular, there is an opportunity for the law school labs, court innovation groups, legal tech entrepreneurs, and others focused on ‘justice innovation’ to be creating some standard ways of working. These would not be hard-and-fast data standards. Rather it would be a collection of best practices, strategies, and instruments that we can share.

In particular, we could be spreading & scaling our ways of working, including:

  • The visual design patterns, messages, and strategies that work. Each cultural context may need different symbols, content, and messages. But as we learn what engages people to take on hard tasks around their money, housing, family, and employment problems — it’s worth it to share these strategies explicitly with each other. That may mean sharing the actual visuals being used, or the strategies underlying them. We might replicate these successful models in different jurisdictions.
  • The design process to use to create effective interventions. This would include how to get the right mix of stakeholders, involve them in the creation and testing of the interventions, and ensure that there is equitable, lively participation. How do we check for blind spots, missing participants,
  • The metrics & evaluation instruments we use to measure outcomes. How do we know whether a new legal help design works? And what are the protocols we can use to measure this performance — in the lab or in the field? We need more discussion and collaboration across our R&D groups about evaluation. Most groups don’t have the luxury to run gold-standard randomized control trials because of how burdensome they are to establish, and partners who are unwilling to randomize who gets the new intervention. So we must create other experimental and quasi-experimental research designs that can still help us understand if a justice intervention is worthwhile — -or if it should be changed or discontinued.

I’m excited to build more of these ‘design standards’ for our group in Stanford and to spread and edit them while we collaborate with groups like Professor Palmirani’s group in Italy, and other labs and research teams around the world.

Please feel free to share your own best practices on developing & evaluating ‘justice interventions’ in the comments!

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