By Sahil Chopra

(Part of a series of posts documenting the Design for Justice: Language Access class)

Entering home stretch of the Autumn quarter, we spent today’s class first synthesizing our findings and working on our final pitch to the California Judicial Council and then selecting one of our prototypes for further development.

To start the the synthesis process, we grabbed a whiteboard and divided it into two halves — with one side dedicated to answering “What we heard or saw?” and the other dedicated to answering “What do we do in response?” Starting with the former question, we started jotting down quotes and experiences we had catalogued over the past few weeks from our interviews and observations, before clustering them around common topics. This exercise yielded two incredibly salient themes that we hope to address with our revised prototype:

 

  • Time: People fear the courthouse, because it takes an inordinate amount of time and as a result deprives of economic and educational opportunity that they would be accumulating, had they not spent hours upon hours and days upon days within the courthouse. One woman we interviewed exclaimed that, “divorce right now is almost a full-time job”; while another lamented that the amount of time she had to spend in court affected her kids’ academics, as they had to accompany her so that she could have the proper assistance necessary to fill out the English-language forms.
  • The process of getting proper help seems to take too much time because the self-help desk is understaffed and because court users produce a large number of errors while filling out their paperwork. Many of the people have interviewed over the past several weeks have mentioned that they often spend several hours waiting to be helped, only to be told that they made a mistake in their documents and are then sent to back the of line to seek guidance.
  • As a result, we witness a vicious cycle. The self-help desk is constantly creating its own backlog of requests, ultimately increasing stress and time allotted per case — for both the clerks and the court users. As a result of this feedback, one of our primary goals is to reduce the amount of time that a user has to spend in order to fill and submit their proper paperwork. This will help users have a more pleasurable and accessible court experience, while reducing the stress upon the self-help clerks.

  • Language Barriers Are Multifaceted: One thing we did not realize until we began user testing was how multifaceted of a problem language barriers actually are. When presenting our “Redesigned-Form” prototype to non-native speakers last week, we established a situation where we asked our interviewees to file for divorce. On the second page of the prototype, we asked our court users to declare whether they wanted a “Divorce”, “Legal Separation”, or “Nullity” from a “Marriage” or “Domestic Partnership”. While it was clear to the user that they were on a page associated with divorce, they were unsure as to what the differences were between a “divorce”, “legal separation”, and a “nullity”. As a native English speaker these terms seem foreign, as they are rooted in precise legal terminology; so one apparent aspect of “language access” is to provide court users with simple language that unpacks these precise terms. But the problem with language access extends far behind legal terminology and words in different languages. There are often significant cultural barriers as well. When interviewing a technologically-savvy Uyghur woman, we saw her even tried opening Google Translate on her phone, writing the phrase, and having the service produce a Mandarin version of the text. The problem was, however, that the concept did not exist in her culture; so even though she had the translated phrase, the concept did not register. This highlights the fact that language access does not simply include English-barriers, but also cultural ones. We must overcome both in order to provide true access to court systems.

 

With this in mind, we shifted to the other half of the board, answering “What do we do in response?” Here are a few of the ideas from that brainstorm:

  1. Split the current forms into manageable chunks so that we do not overwhelm court users and narrow context of any page down to a singular topic so that it become easier for a non-native speaker to identify the goal of the page, even if they struggle to understand the bulk of it.
  2. Provide native-language instructions and definitions that unpack legal ease in laymen’s terms and pay attention to cultural differences, in their explanations of legal terms.
  3. Add legal advice forums like r/legal-advice into the court website; and provide a platform for non-native speakers to voice their experiences to others within their communities. We heard from many younger court users, that they looked online to blogs in order to understand the experience they were about to undertake, as a user of the court. These blogs reassured them and provided guidance, when they were most confused. It would be cool to provide this type of support on the court website and extend it to non-native speakers.

Moving forward, we are going to further pursue our “Redesigned-Form” prototype, diving deeper into the Divorce Experience to provide a more nuanced prototype experience.

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