What can policymakers, courts, legal aid, community, and university groups be doing to make the civil justice system better?
The Stanford Legal Design Lab has identified 7 areas for courts, agencies, and nonprofits to prioritize.
To make a justice system that is accessible to all, there will be no single magic bullet. We need a coordinated set of interventions.
Stanford Legal Design Lab presents these 7 areas for justice innovation to keep institutions focused on where they can make the most impact.
This list is based on our past classes, research, design workshops, and collaborations with justice groups across the country. No single solution will make the justice system work better for people struggling with their housing, money, and family.
Design, tech, policy, and other reforms need to happen in these 7 areas together, to make the system more accessible, equitable, and just.
In this summary, we give a short description of each of the 7 areas. Then follow the link or scroll below to see more examples & details about these hotspots for innovation.
Get legal rights, service directories, guides & court forms where people are likely to find them: on search engines, websites, social media, & in the community. Info about legal rights and services should be out where people are seeking help. Legal aid, courts, and others need to do a better job with this outreach, so more people will know about the justice system & feel confident to use it.
Information about legal rules, procedures & warnings should be engaging, understandable, and usable. Legal groups need to use visuals, plain language, design principles, and a user’s perspective to transform how they communicate with regular people. Courts, legal aid groups, agencies, and community groups need to invest in user-centered designs of notices, guides, maps, websites, forms, and training. In addition, these communications should also make language and disability access a priority.
Even if more people are trying to ‘DIY’ their civil justice problems, they want experts to help them make strategic choices, prepare their cases, and advocate for them. This expert might be a full-representation lawyer who takes their case and helps them throughout the full journey. Or it could be a lawyer or other professional who helps them with certain tasks (like filling in forms, presenting to a judge, or writing a letter).
More experts can also change the dynamics of the system: by changing the calculus of plaintiffs about whether to bring lawsuits, by holding court officers accountable to due process standards, and by bringing cases to reform the law.
Resolving a civil legal problem can be a long and demanding journey. People want coaches who can support them throughout this journey. These might be virtual or human navigators, who help a person understand what’s happening, know what is coming up, understand their options, and find services.
Navigators can also offer emotional support to get through the tasks, decisions, and deadlines to deal with their problem. Courts might offer navigators on the day of court, community groups might train navigators to spot-and-refer in the community, and nonprofits might develop full navigators to support a person through their full journey.
For those civil justice problems that end up in court, a person should be able to fully participate in the court process. That means it should be easy to find the court, attend meetings and hearings, present claims and evidence, respond to the other side, negotiate a settlement, and understand what the final order says.
The experience of the court should also be user-centered. Clerks, judges, bailiffs, attorneys, and others at the court should treat a person with respect, transparency, and dignity. As civil courts increasingly become a system for people without lawyers, the courts need to redesign the rules, interactions, timeline, and experience of what it means to go to court.
Apart from helping individuals with their justice problems, the courts and legal groups need to build infrastructure to make meaningful progress on the system. They must work with other public interest groups, especially in federal and local government, community services, and trusted local groups. These partnerships can improve outreach, support, and relationships with the public. They can also unlock resources and collaborations to amplify the impact of legal help, to positively impact people’s housing, financial, and family stability. Courts, legal aid groups, and other justice stakeholders also need to think about data and tech infrastructure that can allow for strategic advancements in how they serve the public.
Civil justice reform typically focuses on public interest organizations, like courts, legal aid groups, attorneys general, or philanthropies. But private companies play important roles in many of the key parts of people’s justice journeys, and the public interest groups’ ability to tackle strategic improvements.
Public interest organizations must find better ways to bring private actors into justice innovation work. Some of this work might be finding common interests with private companies around civil justice, including around corporate social responsibility or a commitment to improving people’s stability and equitable access to the justice system.
It also includes scrutinizing how technology companies respond to people when they ask for help with legal problems. And it means more strategic coordination with vendors who sell software and data systems to legal organizations.
Finally, it involves the identification of companies that misuse the legal system by bringing low-quality lawsuits or deceptive practices.
1: Wider Outreach
Get Legal Rights, Services, and Forms to where people are.
Legal services & court groups need to prioritize outreach more. This means having clear strategies to connect with people through an Internet search, social media, community partnerships, and other agencies.
Every state court, law help portal, local court, and legal aid group should have a modern website with content that matches what people are searching for. When people have a life problem, they often start their problem-solving on the Internet. The civil justice system’s service providers must do a better job at putting information, services, tools, and forms on the Internet, where people are seeking help.
Legal organizations should have a Public Interest Website, Internet Search, & Social Media strategy.
Having a website is not enough to attract & guide people. Teams should invest in modern, user-friendly, and discoverable websites. They should also work on social media sites and forums to direct people away from misinformation and toward authoritative, public interest content.
Read more about how to do this on our Legal Help Dashboard site.
Court forms and document assembly tools should be easy to find via Google Search.
Court forms should be online, and listed on pages in ‘normal people’ language, with SEO strategies. They should not be part of a ‘content dump’, in which forms are listed off by legalese or obscure numbers in a long list. If a person searches for ‘form to get a restraining order’, the court form webpage should be in top 2 search results. It shouldn’t be buried behind code names or hidden in pdfs.
Form-filing tools and navigators should be easy to find and widely available.
There should be technology tools & human services to help people fill in forms correctly. Form Navigators should be at court and in online self-help centers to help people complete forms and review forms they filled in themselves. Each common SRL form should have an online form-filling tool that is mobile-friendly, easy to use, and free. Courts should review their existing document assembly tools & efiling tools to ensure they are low-burden, mobile-friendly, plain language — following best practices with examples from Code for America, 18F, Upsolve, and JustFix.
Online self-help must be prioritized with more virtual courts.
These might be through pre-Zoom waiting rooms, online lawyer-for-a-day breakout rooms, visual guides to be shared on the screen, and other techniques to help level the inequities in an online hearing — and ensure there is full participation by SRLs in virtual court.
Filing online should be available to all people, and with a healthy marketplace of providers.
Courts should permit SRLs to efile forms. They should also create APIs or data exchanges, to allow 3rd party service-providers (EFSPs), to file on behalf of SRLs. Courts should be clear and easy to work with by tech providers, so that more tech nonprofits and for-profits offer tools & efiling to people.
See the Filing Fairness Project to explore this topic. This is our Lab’s collaboration with Stanford’s Center on the Legal Profession.
2: Engaging Communication
Make Legal Info Visual, Clear, and Usable.
Legal aid, court self-help centers, and courts should make it easy for people to understand what services they offer, what the process is, and what is happening with that person’s case. It can build up a sense of transparency and control, and increase agency and strategic decision-making.
Revise court documents like forms, summons, settlement forms, and other templates with good visual design and plain language. These can help people have better strategic understanding, engagement, and use of the information.
Put Help & Referral Sheets throughout the process. Any time a summons and complaint go out (especially in court matters with high numbers of self-represented litigants like evictions and debt collection), there should be a Help Sheet with key legal, financial, court resources, contact details, and next steps. The actual Answer packet should be included along with a QR code or link to a digital tool to help them fill it out. Summons should be remade to have ‘What to do next’ section and ‘Who to call for assistance’ section. This is a key moment when people decide whether to participate or not, and whether to make use of free services.
Implement clear branding, labeling, and wayfinding (both online and in real life) of Court Self Help, legal aid, and associated programs to help litigants (including navigators, lawyer-for-a-day, brief advice clinics, and diversion programs). They should have clear, distinctive brands — there should be posters, fliers, and verbal announcements of them. They should have community, digital, and in-house advertising.
Create Step-by-step and process map visuals. These communications about the legal process (think subway maps, storyboards, and timelines) can help people see what to expect. They can also see paths to take.
3: More Expert Advice & Advocacy
More People Need Legal Advice & Representation.
This could be through increased funding, mandates, or innovations around how to get more people to train to help people through civil justice problems — and to offer free or affordable help to people trying to resolve their problem.
Right to Counsel can get free lawyers to people, who can represent them in key civil justice matters. Right to Counsel can change the individual outcomes and the dynamics of the system. When there are more lawyers or advocates representing people, then likely there will be more process, ability to dispute low-quality claims, and negotiate better settlements. This increased representation can also have a systematic effect, of changing plaintiffs’ calculations about when and how to pursue claims.
More brief advice and unbundled services can get assistance, counsel, and support to people — even if there is a shortage of free, full-representation lawyers. These services in the form of lawyer-for-a-day representation in court, legal advice clinics, counseling hotlines, and form-filling support, can help more people understand their options, complete a complicated task, and navigate a high-stakes hearing.
Para-professionals, limited license technicians, and other kinds of non-lawyers can help people through the legal process and doing legal tasks. These new kinds of providers now might be able to operate in some states because of regulatory reform that changes the law about who can provide legal advice or own a legal service provider.
4: Navigators through the Justice Journey
Coach People through the Legal System with Virtual & Human Navigators.
People need support to get through lengthy justice journeys. Legal aid, court, and other groups should provide ongoing coaching through virtual and human reminders, emotional support, and process navigators.
Provide Reminders & updates via text messages, phone, and email from the court or service to the person, to keep them connected and aware, and to also make it very easy for them to continue on their journey.
Text messaging especially helps to build relationships, coach people through complex processes, and do outcomes evaluation.
Build navigator programs, that are both ‘spot-and-refer’ navigators to find people with issues and help them begin their justice journey. And also procedural navigators that help people continually move along the many tasks and decisions in their justice problem-solving and court process. Finally, build courthouse navigators that can get people to the right place within the building and services — and that might also help them at the hearing.
5: User-Centered Court Rules & Practices
Court’s operations, procedures, and experiences should work for people without lawyers.
Not all justice innovation solutions need to center on the court, but what the court does is important to many of the cases that do end up as a case. The court’s formal procedural rules & the behavior of officers like judges and clerks have a big effect on whether people participate, how they are able to protect their rights, and what justice outcomes occur.
Active Judging is one big area, in which judges leave the passive umpire role, and work with the litigants to ensure that their rights are protected, due process is upheld, and justice is achieved.
There should be training of judges and clerks in diversion programs, collaborative courts, and SRL-oriented courtrooms, so they are aware of ethical rules, know what is permitted, and also know the models that balance the ethical restrictions with more procedural justice. There can also be clear rules in what is legal advice and what is legal information, including with a ‘grace area’ for interactions that might walk this line.
Build User-Centered Business Processes that build in reviews, smart triage, due process protections, and other best practices. You can standardize the processes in the name of efficiency, and spread change among judicial officers this way.
Mediation and Settlement Conferences can help parties reach a settlement without a court order, especially when there is active involvement of a judge or third party to ensure that the agreement is fair and legal.
Diversion programs pair financial assistance, social service counselors, and alternative dispute resolution processes should become the norm in housing and debt cases. These programs take an adversarial lawsuit into a track that prioritizes repairing relationships, getting both parties to a mutual resolution, and hopefully preventing further litigation or exacerbation of problems.
Burdens and restrictions to filing lawsuits, whether that is requiring more evidence from plaintiffs to file debt collection or eviction lawsuits, or limiting the reasons for eviction to ‘just cause’ reasons can help reduce the number of justice problems and lawsuits brought against people.
6: Interagency Collaborations & Strategic Initiatives
Legal institutions need to build partnerships & infrastructure that will help them serve the public better.
Collaborative civil court models should be piloted for case types that are likely to be involved with poverty outcomes, like housing and debt. These new pilots can borrow from homeless courts, rehabilitative DUI courts, veterans courts, and local efforts by judges who have designed new collaborative courts in housing. The goal should be to prevent the court case from leading to a litigant’s (and their family)’s poverty. There should be social services integrated into the judicial process. There might be a social service caseworker assigned to litigants who screen for this. There could also be mental health support for litigants who are partly in this situation because of a mental health crisis. The courtroom and judges’ role will be more cooperative, and less adversarial.
Local regional coalitions on the biggest justice problems — so that courts, legal aid, city/county government, and nonprofit providers are regularly meeting to take the pulse on local legal/social needs; that they are sharing data about issue levels and outcomes of the population; and that they are identifying ways to improve their community together. Court leaders and administrators should be networked with this broader network of policymakers, in order to find ways to cooperate and contribute to good societal outcomes.
Have an ‘online justice’ steward in each state — that ensures that people in their state are served with (1) at least one quality court and one legal help/aid website; (2) that these websites are up-to-date, mobile-friendly, and without bugs; (3) that these websites have clear FAQs, guides, form tools, and referrals for the most common issue areas; (4) that these websites are showing up prominently on Google searches.
Commit to data standards & APIs, as well as improved procurement management. Each court (ideally at the state level) should abide by the most common national standards (NODS for case management fields, ECF for efiling). They should have a data warehouse so they are gathering statewide data on case types, outcomes, etc. They should prepare Data Access protocols to share data with government agencies and researchers. They should ensure that their procurement contracts provide for data standard implementation, APIs, and strong management of their vendor relationships. At the same time, they should have data privacy protections, and ensure that third-party entities, including those they have contracts with, are not harvesting users’ data or doing unethical things with it.
Funders should consider longer grants to legal tech nonprofits, to help them not only build excellent products — but also maintain them and keep them modern, accurate, and discoverable over a long period of time. Possibly also to help them scale to more regions, topics, and demographics. There should be a move away from the 1,000 flowers blooming/local experimentation approach. Rather there should be funding of more national or regional strategies, that can pool the money towards excellent engineers, designers, and content efforts that can get best-in-class online legal help with a maintenance plan, and with efforts to reach a much wider audience.
7: Loop in Private Companies
Private companies can help increase access to justice, and bad behavior can also be addressed.
Search engines and social media are important brokers of people’s access to the legal system. There should be meetings, audits, collaborations, and pressure put on the most prominent search engines, social media companies, and other places where people are searching for & exploring information about how to solve legal problems. These companies should be working to provide accurate, jurisdiction-correct, actionable, public interest information to people seeking help on their platforms. They should be held to account when they are providing people with information that can be harmful: from the wrong jurisdiction, with incorrect or vague information, or by for-profit scam companies.
Private platforms that companies use to manage landlord-tenant, debt, and other relationships play a role in how and when people are sued, what due process looks like (in the form of notices, warnings, etc), and whether the people try alternative dispute resolution before going to the courts. There should be engagement with them, about how to build more alternative dispute resolution, user-friendly notices and communications, and practices that can prevent lawsuits that would harm people’s housing and finances.
Court and legal aid technology providers are a key part of access to justice. There should be regular evaluation of their offerings to the institutions and to litigants: is it effective, accessible, and secure? Does it meet today’s needs and allow for innovations to take advantage of new technological advancements?