Class Blog Project updates

Design for Justice: Language Access — an introduction in week 1

by Sahil Chopra

Language is the medium by which we interact with culture, express our ideas, and maintain our rights. Without “language access”, i.e. the ability to convey one’s thoughts effectively and understand others correctly, one is disempowered altogether. At a societal level this can lead to systemic inequality, whether intentional or not; and one of the places where this is most evident is the court system.

This Autumn, I’m one of the 25 students enrolled in Stanford’s Design for Language Access, a course initiated by the Stanford Legal Design Lab to investigate and advise how state courts may better serve Californians entering the legal system, who either do not speak or have limited proficiency with English.

As the Judicial Council of California’s Strategic Plan for Language Access in California Court details, 40% of Californians speak non-English languages at home, 200+ languages and dialects are spoken by Californians as a whole, and approximately ~20% of Californians have English language limitations. Going to court is always a stressful experience, as the impetus to seek court help is often a difficult circumstance itself. Coupling the weight of the incident with the inability to communicate and properly resolve your issue only magnifies the stress incurred by the individual. Moreover, it may be difficult to properly resolve one’s legal issue and receive the proper access to one’s legal rights if they are unable to effectively communicate with lawyers, clerks, and judges within the judicial branch. Thus, “language access”, as the Judicial Council of California titles it, is a critical issue that we must address in order to ensure and fair and equitable legal proceedings.

Personally, I have no prior background with judicial systems. I’m a computer scientist by training, completing my BS/MS with concentrations in Artificial Intelligence and Human Computer Interaction – focusing a bulk of my research in cognitive science and natural language processing. But that’s where the diverse experience of my classmates come in. We are lawyers, teachers, designers, business students, and computer scientists — all hoping to better understand this space and offer a different perspective.

Over the next nine weeks, we shall apply the fundamental principles of “Design Thinking” to first observe and interview individuals going through the court system and then hypothesize, prototype, and test potential strategies that may provide better language access to millions of Californians. Our class will culminate in a list of possible solutions and implementations which the California courts may consider as potential avenues by which the state can improve language access at scale. Additionally, we shall be evaluating a pilot program that California courts is running in San Jose, where tablets with Google Translate are being employed to help ease communication between non-English-speaking clients and English-speaking court staff.

Stay tuned to learn more week-by-week about our journey to help provide better language access to Californians!

Language Access Reading Wayfinding in legal system

How graphic design helps us navigate buildings

This 99 Design article by Alex Bigman gives a photo tour of wayfinding designs from hospitals, airports, and other government buildings.

If it weren’t for graphic design, you’d have a lot more trouble finding the restroom. Office buildings, museums and libraries would also become virtually impossible to navigate. And garages? Don’t even bother trying to remember where you parked.

Though we often take it for granted, wayfinding design – the environmental design practice involving the creation of signs and directories to help us figure out where we are and where we want to go in structures – is a key function of graphic design in everyday urban life.

Not long ago we became fascinated by the debates surrounding subway map design, and now wayfinding design has captivated us as well. Check out these thirty examples of awesome and unusual wayfinding signage, and think of how lost you’d be without it.

Language Access Reading

Access to Justice for People Who Do Not Speak English

This article by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard of Indiana describes what justice issues arise out of language access problems in state courts.

Current Projects Wayfinding and Space Design

Trends in Courthouse Design : a profile of new space designs

The National Center for State Courts has a 2004 article from Don Hardenbergh, president of Courtworks, on Trends in Courthouse Design :: Courthouse Facilities.

In the article, Hardenbergh profiles the move to use the space of courts to make the judicial system more accessible, navigable, and open to the public. It is because of the increasing focus on service design and customer-oriented services.

This means more spacious waiting rooms.

Better public information and signage.

More support for child care and entertaining environments for them.

Concern and protection for victims and witnesses.

More pleasant treatment of juries.

Easier access to information and services.

Interventions to reduce waiting times and lines.

This means more working spaces and areas for pro se litigants, in particular, as well as more working spaces and counters for people who are trying to carry out tasks.


Wayfinding and Space Design

Wayfinding signs with language access from hospitals

These were sent from a Kaiser Health facility in California as examples that a court could possibly follow.

Class Blog

Final report from Prototyping Access to Justice: 7 prototypes to make courts more user-friendly

Last Friday was the final class in the Stanford Law School/ class Prototyping Access to Justice. Kursat Ozenc and I were teaching the course as a practical, service design effort.

The big question guiding the work: if hundreds of thousands of Californians go to the courts to deal with their divorce, child custody, debt, and housing problems — how can we make the courts work for them, on their own terms? We know that growing numbers of people are trying to use the courts without a lawyer, but that the courts have been designed for lawyers — with complex procedure and intimidating jargon is so complicated that only lawyers can really figure it out.

Students were given initial design briefs that we had crafted from our earlier research into California Courts’ Self Help Centers last year. In the first version of this class, we followed litigants through their court journeys and interviewed professionals to identify key opportunities and breakdown points.

This quarter’s classes aimed to use this groundwork to jump more quickly into prototyping and testing. Each of the design teams worked on site at San Mateo County or Santa Clara County courthouses, and at the Stanford labs — going through 3 cycles of scoping out a concept design, making a prototype of it, and testing it with many different stakeholders.

We ended up with seven proposals for the courts to pilot. Two concerned how to remake the court building and design of physical space. Two were new modes of guides, to present better ways to guide litigants through complicated tasks. One was about better form completion. One was about new modes for court feedback. And one was about better preparing court users before they come to court for the first time.

The teams made videos, maps, and presentations to capture their proposals, and we present them here for you to review. We ask you for your feedback now — because we are vetting these seven proposals to decide which to continue working on and possibly pilot with the courts.

1. Redesign of the Court Building: Visual Lines + Signs for Empowered Wayfinding

Team Chuka Ryori were tasked with helping people just as they arrived at the court the first time. How could we make people feel more supported, less confused and intimidated, and more capable of getting through the process efficiently?

Visual Wayfinding in Courts from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

Their proposal is to launch a coordinated, color-coded, pictogram-based wayfinding system in the court building. There should be color paths on the floor for the most common user destinations, with pictograms and a palette that supports finding the right place.

They did guerrilla-design work, by “decorating” the actual court with new lines, signs and pictograms to test how users reacted. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Our next steps are to refine the color palette and pictograms, and then work with the court to implement the new lines and signs.

2. Redesign of the Court Building: Respectful, Transparent Line Waiting

Team Golden Design Warrior was focused on the next moment in the user’s journey, when a person found the Self Help Center, but now must deal with the long and confusing wait to get services. After several different ideas to change the layout of the space, the team moved to focus on how to set up lines that gave users greater transparency and more comfort while waiting to be served.

New Line Waiting Design in Courts from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

The team identified that people were rushing to wait in a confusing line. They were stressed out, and in turn stressing out the staff who felt as if they had to barricade themselves in against a huge amount of people who wanted things from them. The goal of the system is to give people a clear ticket that would give them an explicit place in line, and would let them relax, sit down, and see when they could expect to be served.

The first pilot is just with laminated cards and a person distributing them near the entrance. Then it can be scaled to an automated ticketing service.

This prototype has tested remarkably well with both litigants and professionals, reducing both stakeholders’ stress and giving them more of a sense of control. With the simple intake during the sign-up, the professionals can better prep for the clients’ cases. They also get insulated from the pressure of a huge group of people hovering around their doors.

The joy of this design is how a simple service intervention can have a huge experiential payoff — making the experience of visiting court or working there be less anxious, confusing, and stressful.

3. Visual Book Guide to Following a Legal Process

Instead of worksheets and forms, or instructions told out loud before a person leaves the Center, how do we convey instructions and guidance to them? How do we make it easier for them to follow the procedure, so they stay on track and get it all completed correctly and on time?

Team Jiffy Justice proposes a visual booklet, that gives people a step-by-step map of what the process will look like, what to do, and how exactly to finish the steps. It’s about envisioning, modeling, and taking legal actions out of abstract text language, and into clear, grounded situations.

My Court Case Guide for self represented litigants from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

The team made a map that can be printed as a poster, a handout, or part of the book. It gives the systems-level view of the case. People liked this as an orientation material, but still wanted more detail about exactly what each of these steps entails. A high-level view helps give a person the mental model of the system, but they want to dig into more specific instructions and strategies.

The team made the booklet to enhance the guide, to go from the map to the detailed instructions.

They built it specifically so it could be easily printed on common paper sizes by the Self Help Center. It incorporates the map, but then with details of the forms, the filing info, and common flags and warnings.

The next, scaled-up version of this would be a digital version (most likely on mobile) that has the step-by-step guidance and the map for the person to follow along as they go through the process.

4. Text-based coaching through complicated process

Team Exit took this same challenge — how to help people through complicated procedures that they often fail at? Their proposal is more tech-centered, harnessing the power of the mobile phone. They created a prototype of the RemindMe Text system, in which litigants would get coaching reminders, customized due dates, and clear blasts of instructions about what to do to serve process (a particularly thorny part of a process, that people often screw up).

Court Text Messaging Project: RemindMe Text from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

The team embraced the principle of staging information and providing it at the right moment and context. Rather than give huge worksheets with general information all at once, segment it into specific messages and customize it with the user’s own information.

This program could later incorporate other kinds of messages, beyond reminders — including the maps and visuals that Team Jiffy Justice had in their booklets, or the wayfinding and prep materials that other teams proposed.

The great part of this proposal is that the text message channel, opened up between the courts and the litigants, can allow for a diversity of services to be provided in the future. As more technology is developed for court services, they can be integrated into this same channel.

5. Prep People Before Court with Warnings and Key Info

Even before people come to court, how do we make sure they come prepared to make the most of the day — and not waste it? Especially if it takes several hours to even get to speak to someone at court, how do we make sure people come with the paper, translators, and knowledge enough to get their tasks accomplished?

PrepMe: Pre-Court Information Strategy from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

PrepMe is an idea to do better outreach around this Prep information, via websites, mobile apps, and other court materials. It should be in multiple languages, and show very prominently the most common prep information people don’t know: about translators, child care, and timings.

This information can be presented also in court correspondence, posters, fliers, and any other ‘touchpoint’ where people are thinking about using the court system and planning for how to do it.

It prioritizes language access as a fundamental principle of design of court information, rather than as an add-on afterthought.

6. Help People Fill in Forms Better

One of the big failpoints in the legal process is the correct completion of forms. Team Remind proposed two prototypes — one paper-based, the other tech-enabled for improving litigants’ ability to complete Service of Process forms.

The paper-based system involves tagging up and creating a model completed form, that would guide a person through exactly how to follow this model.

The tech-based guide uses a Google Doc form to let people enter in the key data points, and then uses Python to fill in the form with this data. The litigant (or the process-server) never needs to see the Judicial Council form except when they print and file it. The Python script does the completion for them.

The vision of this prototype is to have a 2-pronged tech/paper strategy, so that resources are allocated to different types of users in the system. It is also to come up with cheap hacks to use the power of technology. Rather than contract with an expensive, proprietary vendor to provide for form-filling, the goal here is to mash together existing, modern, mobile-friendly services (like Google Docs) to get a very cheap and quick working system of filling in forms.

The other big insight here was in the power of having an interdisciplinary team, with lawyers and computer scientists working together to find the most strategic uses of technology that would serve the legal system. Lawyers should know the power of Python — a major takeaway for our partners.

7. Gather user input and experiences to feed back to the Courts

Team Law4U drafted a prototype of a kiosk in the Self Help Center’s office, that would ask simple questions from people as they’re waiting to get service. They’d be able to rate the court’s quality of service and give ideas for improvements.

Feedback systems for Courts from Margaret Hagan on Vimeo.

In the future, this program could also recruit litigants to join a Standing User Testing panel, in which they’d be compensated for reviewing new court efforts or giving more feedback to the courts. This would feed into a broader culture of testing and experimentation in the system.

These seven prototypes are the result of 9 weeks of hard, creative work by our Prototyping Access to Justice class. Many thanks to the wonderful students and coaches!

We are soliciting feedback now on these prototypes, so that we can then proceed to pilot implementations of some of them in the courts. Let us know what you think!

Class Blog Design Research

Drawing of a Housing Court waiting room

A sketch from my notebook, while I was observing a waiting room in a Court Service center in Boston, for people who were waiting for help with housing cases.

Current Projects Dispute Resolution

Online Court Project from the University of Michigan

I’ve started scouting out different courtroom based service & system designs.  Here is one, that my colleague Briane alerted to me: the Online Court Project based out of the University of Michigan.  It features new ideas to integrate tech and automation into court processes.


Led by U-M Law School professor J.J. Prescott, this Global Challenges project seeks to revolutionize how the public interacts with courts. Its technology-driven approach has the potential to create an entirely new case resolution process, one that improves performance and accessibility along numerous dimensions and makes courts better suited for the information age.


Judicial systems exist to provide a way for societies to organize themselves around the rule of law. In order to accomplish this goal, courts need to be (1) accessible; (2) fair; and (3) cost-effective. Unfortunately, due to their reliance on antiquated, non-technological processes, courts in the United States have seen little improvement on these three measures in recent decades.

With respect to access to justice, American courts are notoriously difficult to understand and use, especially for people without attorneys. In significant part, this confusion results from the fact that courts are structured almost entirely around face-to-face, one-on-one interactions with judges and court personnel, which is comparable to providing banking services without ATM’s.

Even the simplest negotiation points in the process require litigants to physically go to court, a process that is time-consuming, opaque, and intimidating. Consequently, millions of people, who have relatively minor issues that require negotiation with the judge or prosecutor, are either inconvenienced or simply avoid interacting with the system. The magnitude of this problem is demonstrated by the approximately 30 million warrants currently outstanding for failure to appear for show cause hearings.

Likewise, the courts’ reliance on snapshot decision-making leads to sub-optimal decisions. One-on-one process simply does not provide judges and court personnel with adequate time to collect and analyze information about litigants. As a result, decisions are often based on little more than general impressions about litigants, opening the door for numerous undesirable outcomes, including:

  • Decisions influenced by subconscious biases.
  • Perceived arbitrariness, such as when misdemeanor defendants with substantively identical cases receive wildly different sanctions.
  • Due process failures, such litigants with unpaid fines being imprisoned due to incorrect assessments of their ability to pay.

Finally, already cash-strapped states and municipalities are crippled by fixed-cost legal infrastructure. Not only are current processes non-technological, they scale poorly; costs are high on a per transaction basis, and remain high even as volume increases, essentially imposing a tax on growth.

What is required is a scalable, web-based alternative to the one-on- one decision making process.

Project Goals

This project will harness emerging insights into how judges do their jobs to build an algorithm-based portal to allow litigants to engage in largely automated negotiations with courts online.

The project’s algorithmic approach is designed to replicate the outcomes generated by the traditional one-on-one consultative process, but with enormous transaction costs savings. This approach works by providing judges with a way to specify in advance what information is required to make a decision about a litigant’s case, and providing litigants with the ability to submit that information to the court over the internet.

Judges apply rules to factual information to generate decisions; these rules can either be clear-cut application of law or what are sometimes referred to as “decisions heuristics,” the individual rules of thumb that judges use to make repetitive decisions quickly. While some thought-leaders in the judicial community have encouraged judges to formalize decision heuristics for consistency purposes, this project goes one step further to achieve a truly novel result: by programming these rules into software, many of the high-volume transactions that currently require the in-person interaction can be handled online. The technology will have two basic components: (1) a dashboard interface where judges can enter decision rules based on the facts they view important; (2) a forward-facing portal where litigants can submit information and requests using a multiple-choice framework similar to TurboTax.

While this method can theoretically automate a significant amount of the work courts are asked to do, in Phase 1 we will create the system for one to three courthouses, designed to process resolutions for a limited subset of transactions, such as unpaid fines and minor misdemeanor charges.

Success in Phase 1 will involve identifying suitable courthouses for pilot deployment, assisting judges in mapping the decision rules they use to make repetitive decisions, building the technology so that it integrates with the court’s data systems, and then assisting the court in encouraging litigant adoption. Assuming Phase 1 is successful, Phase 2 will focus on expanding the types of transactions delegated to the software, and more importantly, scale-up to an entire county or even the entire state.

If successful, this project will result in the creation of an entirely new type of court, one well-suited to the information age. In addition to efficiency gains, the shift away from snapshot, one-on-one decision making will open the door for a more “data-driven” justice system. Finally, in addition to being scalable throughout the United States the technology has potentially strong applications for the developing world, where a lack of effective legal infrastructure acts as a major deterrent to foreign investment.

Project Team:

James. J. Prescott: Principal Investigator

Benjamin Gubernick: Project Research Director.

MJ Cartwright: Pilot Program Director

Court Innovations, Inc.: A U-M startup founded by Professor Prescott and Mr. Gubernick.