Class Blog Design Research Project updates

Observing a county court for language access

Initial Observations at the Santa Clara Family Justice Center (Week 2)
By Sahil Chopra

During our second week of the course, we paid our first visit to the Santa Clara Family Justice Center in order to observe, explore, and immerse ourselves in the court experience. Our day at court was structured around exploring the self-help facilities before branching out into smaller, more intimate portions of the courthouse in smaller groups. My team drove down to the court and arrived at around 8:30 am, just as the self-help waiting room started to fill up. We jotted down a few stray observations before convening with the rest of our class in the lobby at 9:00 am, where our instructors Margaret and Jonty handed out a few Design Review pamphlets for our day at court, wherein we continued to write down our observations and thoughts.

Here are the highlights from our first trip to court. Next week, we shall pool our individual observations and insights, as we brainstorm what potential problems and solutions might be.

Self-Help Desk


Many users do not have access to a lawyer, so the court provide a self-help desk, where individuals wait in a queue until court staff call up their ticket number and can help them address their problem — whether that be information about the filing process or guidance as to which forms must be filled out in order to proceed with their case. While the self-help desk provides an invaluable service, it is often understaffed. As a result, court users often lineup outside the Family Court around 7:00 am, though the center does not open till 8:30 am and does not start processing tickets until about 9:00 am. When it comes to language access, there is not much the self-help desk can provide on its limited budget. If one does not speak English, he/she/they must bring along a translator, a legal adult in the state of California, i.e. 18 years or older, who is preferably a relative. If they come without a translator, they will ultimately be turned away.


The self-help waiting room feels like a hybrid of the DMV and a doctor’s office. Everyone sits side-by-side, but in their own little-world. Entering the room, there are black chairs lining the perimeter of the room, except for the left-hand-wall, where there is a wall full of assorted forms. While it seemed very well organized, i.e. color-coded, accessible, etc., there were very few people who approached the wall to pick up flyers. Perhaps, the singular placement of all essential forms seemed overwhelming?

Sitting in the crowd, it was easy to spot parents who had brought their teenagers to help them with their paperwork. In hushed voices, I saw a sixteen year boy reading over an assortment of forms, quickly translating them to their mom. Translation services would help decongest the overflowing waiting room, by limiting the number of family members that would need to be brought along. Additionally, it would be beneficial for both the kids and the parents, if the children did not have to take time off school.



Throughout the week, there are several workshops that the self-help desk hosts, wherein the process for filing a specific motion is discussed and then assistance is provided with form-filling. It just so happened that our-visit coincided with a divorce workshop.

After spending some time in the self-help room a few of us decided to observe the workshop.


While we were sitting in the self-help room, one of the court staff came out and announced who made it into the workshop and who did not. It seemed a bit impersonal and harsh to be called out by name, especially when everyone knows the issue associated with your use of the court. But maybe, that helps normalize the act of getting help?

The informational portion of the workshop consists of a 50 minute, screen-capture powerpoint presentation and narration. It was interesting that there were more spots for the video portion of the workshop than the 1:1 assistance portion of the workshop, even though the latter part feels more important towards the goal of filing a motion. This discrepancy between max capacity and serviceable capacity highlights the need for more staff.

The PowerPoint video described the technical legal terminology and processes surrounding divorce. While informative, the video didn’t seem to be helpful. Within the room, one couple talked over the video — trying to fill out their paperwork, as the video played. Most of the other viewers seemed to pay attention for the first five minutes before sliding into their chairs and waiting out the remainder of the video’s runtime.

The first problem with the video is that it is entirely in English. If you don’t speak English well, you’ve just wasted 50-minutes that could have been spent getting help.

The second problem with the video is that it is too long and lacked participant engagement. It’s important to be precise and informative, especially when dealing with legal matters; but the video consisted of a powerpoint and a voiceover. There was no color and few pictures. Furthermore, it did not actually help with the process of filling out the forms. Without interactivity, the video failed to provide actionable instructions — thus failing its purpose of providing help to individuals who needed assistance in filing for divorce.

The third problem with the video is that it is unaccessible. It cannot be accessed outside the workshop, and even within the workshop it cannot be paused, rewinded, etc. Thus, it fails it’s purpose of being a 1-stop-reference for all things divorce-related. Additionally, the video was poorly constructed in that a lot of the important facts were spoken but never transcribed on the slides themselves, even though the slides themselves were full of text.

Possible Language Access/Self-Help Solutions

After sitting through the workshop, I think there is a lot low hanging fruit here, i.e. small changes that can be made to improve outcomes and scale the program — even in the face of budgetary issues.

Solution 1 (Low Overhead): There are many computers in the workshop room. Instead of making everyone watch the PowerPoint video together, provide every workshop-attendee a pair of headphones, so that they can pause and rewind the video wherever they want.

Solution 2 (Low Overhead): Split the presentation into digestible chunks. After each video section have the workshop-attendees fill out the respective portion of the form. This tight coupling is often used in flipped classrooms and should make the process more self-directed.

Solution 3 (Low Overhead): Post the video and presentation online. Let people view the contents and fill out the form digitally at home.

Solution 4 (High Overhead): Translate the presentation into several key languages, i.e. Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Mandarin. This is a one-time job but would improve accessibility tremendously.

Miscellaneous Observations

After experiencing the divorce workshop first hand, we decided to sit on a few of the court hearings that were open to the public. Before, we headed up the stairs to the court rooms, I stepped away to get some water. In the five minutes that I was gone, my teammates encountered a Latino women, who could not speak English well. She was asking, where she could find the police; and it was only after a few exchanges that my teammates realized that she was looking for “something to keep [a person] away”, i.e. a restraining order. They then showed her the route to the appropriate court office, but it was apparent that there needs to better outreach within local cultural and ethnic communities in both discussing the purpose of the court, the terminology surrounding the court, and the services that it can provide. This might help reduce friction for those seeking support, especially not native speakers. Perhaps outreach at libraries, churches, and grocery stores might help with this problem.

Overall, I was surprised to see how calm and collected the judges were at responding and guiding the proceedings. It seemed as if they really cared about both parties involved. The empathy demonstrated was quite moving, especially given how messy some of the court cases were.

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