User Needs and Stories in the justice system

What are people’s needs in the legal system?

What do people need to have a good justice system experience, that is empowering, dignified, accessible, and fair?

As our Lab does workshops, classes, and testing with people in the civil justice system, we are compiling the stories, needs, requirements, and requests for innovation that we hear.

They are all anonymized– if names are used, they are all fictional, and identifying details have been removed or fictionalized.

Researchers across US and the world conduct surveys of people’s most common justice problems, and how they respond to them. These are often termed ‘legal needs surveys’ or ‘justice gap surveys’. These surveys quantify how many people there are with particular kinds of justice problems (or legal needs), and what kinds of services they use or prefer to use to address them.

Please find links to some of the most recent studies and datasets on people’s common legal needs.

  • The 2022 Justice Gap survey and report: See the most recent survey results from the Legal Services Corporation of low-income Americans, about what justice problems they have and what resources they are able to use to resolve them
  • 2019 IAALS/HiiL U.S. Justice Needs survey results, for all (not just low-income) Americans, about what legal problems they experience and services they use
  • US 2017 Justice Gap study. Legal Services Corporation. “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.” Washington DC, 2017. Find the LSC study and datasets here.
  • US 2014 legal needs study. Sandefur, Rebecca L. “Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study.” SSRN, 2014. Find Sandefur’s study here.
  • US 1994 legal needs study.  American Bar Association. “Legal Needs and Civil Justice: A Survey of Americans,” 1994. See the study here.
  • California 2019 Legal Needs study. The State Bar of California. “2019 California Justice Gap Study,” 2019. Find the California study here.
  • Washington DC 2019 Legal Needs Study. D.C. Access to Justice Commission. “Delivering Justice: Addressing Civil Legal Needs in the District of Columbia.” Washington, DC, 2019. Find the DC study here.
  • Indiana 2019 Legal Needs Study + Legal Aid Scan. Quintanilla, Victor D., and Rachel Thelin. “Indiana Civil Legal Needs Study and Legal Aid System Scan,” 2019. Find the Indiana Civil Legal Needs Study here.
  • Nevada 2018 Legal Needs Study. Smith, Ken Kelly, and M A Thayer. “Nevada Legal Needs and Economic Impact Study,” October 31, 2018. Find the 2018 Nevada study here.
  • Oregon 2018 Legal Needs Study. Oregon State Bar, The Lawyer’s Campaign for Equal Justice, Oregon Law Foundation, Oregon Law Center, Judicial Department of Oregon, and Legal Aid Services of Oregon. “Barriers to Justice: A 2018 Study Measuring the Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Oregonians,” 2018. Find the 2018 Oregon study here.

User Need Themes from our Design Research

During our interviews, testing sessions, and co-design with justice system users, we have identified key themes about people’s needs, preferences, and behaviors when dealing with legal problems.

User Persona Template

Is your team working on the human-centered design of the legal system? We have a free Canva template you can use to make User Persona documents.

User Personas are slightly fictionalized representations of a person in the justice system, that can help guide design work & brainstorming.

Use the Canva template for making your own User Persona at this link.

User Journey Maps

What does a legal problem look like, step-by-step? It’s helpful to think about the common journey that people go through with a civil justice problem like a traffic ticket, a debt lawsuit, a child support issue, or a landlord-tenant problem.

This generalized flowchart goes through the early stages of the problem, the ‘legal’ actions like notices, lawsuits, and judgments, and the down-the-road consequences people experience.

Or this map of phases of people’s legal journey, mapped to the phases of service providers’ work, can help identify the areas where more innovative solutions need to happen.

AI & Access to Justice user research

Our new AI+A2J Initiative involves interviews and scenario exercises with people about if and how they would use AI for legal problem-solving.

You can explore our interview results and raw data on our main user research page for the AI+A2J initiative.

Eviction and Housing user research

In our work on the eviction system, we have identified common scenarios that have led people into a possible eviction situation.

We have also documented particular user stories, personas, and metaphors/insights about the eviction system.

In our research in the Bay Area, these were the main themes we were hearing about why people were experiencing eviction problems as tenants.  These categories represent some of the most common issues for tenants that we heard in our interviews:

These common eviction scenarios include:

  • Non-payment of rent (one-time emergency)
  • Non-payment of rent (ongoing problem)
  • Withholding rent because of a living condition or landlord problem
  • Habitually late rent payments
  • Retaliation from landlord, after an incident
  • Owner move-in, evicting the tenant to move in or have a family member move in
  • Airbnb (or other short-term rental) conversion
  • Nuisance behavior or lease violation
  • Employment-based tenancy, when the tenant is living in the home in exchange for work for the landlord

See more real-life eviction scenarios at LA Tenant’s Union page here.

Tenant interviews on barriers when trying to get help

Our Justice By Design class team interviewed tenants & wrote a report on their findings of why eviction services & prevention tools were under-utilized.

This report found several key barriers:

  1. Informal Evictions where landlords pressured tenants to leave without going to court — and thus also not activating the eviction prevention service network
  2. Eviction Warning & Court Notices are complex, intimidating, and dis-empowering
  3. Court is Fearsome and Inaccessible, so people would rather avoid it — both for rational and strategic goals, as well as the stress and intimidation of it
  4. Wanting to avoid a ‘Fight’, with instead a focus on getting help and services (or just wanting this problem to end)— not pursuing an adversarial response against their landlord
  5. High Stress during the problem time, so much that people who normally are resourceful and proactive in finding help for their problems were rendered unable to seek out help or be strategic
  6. The burden of accessing services, so that even if a person started trying to get legal or financial help, the time and work required was too much to make them usable or actionable.
  7. Difficulty in sharing one’s hard-won expertise with peers, even when a tenant has figured out what to do (and not to do) to access resources and prevent an eviction — and they want to share this knowledge with others — there is no clear pathway to do this peer-to-peer education

Metaphors for the Eviction Experience

We asked the tenants and landlords we interviewed to make analogies and metaphors for their experience, so we could capture the experience in more illustrative terms. Here are some of the things we heard from people going through eviction.

User Personas Around Eviction Scenarios

Our Lab students drew out specific User Personas of people going through eviction to represent their problems and needs. These are fictionalized versions of people that we have interviewed about their eviction problems.