Class Blog Design Research

Self Help Center essential research

In our interviews with experts and court professionals, we identified some of the core challenges and needs.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • More and more people are coming to the civil court system without a lawyer
  • Judges, clerks, and other court professionals have an obligation to be neutral, but they also must serve these people without lawyers
  • Many of these court professionals are trying to figure out ways that they can be supportive and warm to users, without biasing the system towards them. They don’t want to be totally passive, but they don’t want to be hyperactive in support.
  • They try to help people present the facts clearly, so that the story of what’s going on is clear — so the justice system can work well
  • People can’t figure out how to present their facts and issues on their own — they need assistance to do this

We also heard some core needs and constraints, the “lay of the land” of how the systems work and what dynamics are going on.

About Self Help Centers as a thing:

  • They are run at Courts, on site
  • They are led by a lawyer as a managing director, with support from other attorneys, non-attorneys, and Justice Corps volunteers
  • They must be Neutral
  • They are not the lawyers of the people who come in. There is no confidentiality or other features of an attorney-client relationship
  • They can’t go into court with the person

Many of the people fit into the following categories:

  • they’re employed
  • they make less than $3000 a month
  • many are Spanish-speaking, or don’t have English as their first language
  • many are not of White background
  • many are being referred by word of mouth, clerks, judges, forms, or the website
  • they come seeking “some legal help”
  • then they return for follow-up checks and support — typically there are three visits in family cases.

The goals of the Self Help Center and the Judicial Council are as follows:

  • They want to identify systemic problems they can fix
  • They want to build partnerships and coalitions to enhance the center
  • They want to get beyond just helping the person get the paperwork right — but also improve negotiation and strategy skills
  • They want to figure out ways to make a wider continuum of services available, from lawyers to non-lawyers to tech services

The problems of the system are that it is:

  • designed for lawyers
  • there are very complex choices, because of how the law is structured
  • the forms are made for people with lawyers
  • there is a wide variety of people coming in for service

The opportunities experts see are that:

  • we can use technology, online services, and off-site services
  • we promote more listening and respect for people
  • we give more guidance and navigation
  • we help people advocate for themselves when they are before the judge, so they can make better use of hearings
  • we can identify and redirect complex cases (about 20% of the cases)

What’s going wrong with the Access to Justice movement?

At the end of November 2014, I published a short survey on this site, asking respondents to weigh in on the ‘Access to Justice movement’ (if we can speak of one at all, as if it were a cohesive thing). I’ve published some of their responses in an earlier post, and here is another visual of responses — this time on the topic of what’s going wrong with Access to Justice work.

Respondents are discussing mostly the US & Canadian contexts. I’ve pulled out some of the themes that emerged from the quotes.

Access to Justice - What's going wrong with the legal services movement

To repeat these themes here, as pain points for future design & development work to focus on:

  1. Regulation chills experimentation & new efforts.
  2. A lack of scaling of good solutions — and a lack of central leadership to push & spread good ideas, practices, tech.
  3. Mis-framing of what the targets for work should be — aiming either too blue-sky (not viable or feasible) or too small-scale (looking at band-aid solutions rather than true resolutions)
  4. Lack of user-centered projects. The people creating and implementing new ideas for access are not tied into the end-users (the lay people who need more access). The stakeholders who are involved in what new projects are piloted & supported are motivated so much by self-interest that they aren’t delivering the right kind of solutions.
  5. Lack of public engagement. The end-users aren’t involved in the movement (or even very aware of it).

This shortlist can be used in future design workshops & hackathons — a hitlist for us to target as we work to make a proper, robust, impactful Access to Justice movement.