Helping families get the legal information they need

When people want legal information but do not have access to a lawyer, they tend to head for the internet. Sometimes, they find what they’re looking for. But often, they end up overwhelmed: a search for “special education Pennsylvania,” for example, turns up 345 million sites, each of which, when visited, leads to more clicks and links.

The fact that there is so much information online, much of it disorganized and only some of it likely to be relevant to any particular visitor’s concerns, creates a huge challenge for legal aid organizations. Their web and social media sites must be readily findable by the people they seek to serve, and and must stand out from commercial and other sites that may be designed for different purposes. Navigation must be simple and straightforward. Content must be accurate, but also conveyed in terms understandable to people without legal training — often a difficult balance to achieve. Further, people seeking legal information are often in stressful situations, which complicates communication; and many speak languages other than English.

This semester, a team from the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic took an in-depth look at the web site of the Education Law Center-PA and produced a report on ways in which its already well-developed site could better serve families. Recommendations included reorganizing the site to enable parents to jump more quickly to the information they need; simplifying menus and lists; adding natural-language search and translation functions; developing more short, “plain language” resource materials; and more.

Here’s how the team, which consisted of Ingrid Xiomara Lopez Martinez, Austin Kurtanich, and Lydia Anderson, all 2Ls, summarized their work:

The Education Law Center (ELC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving access to quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania, particularly those who are underserved. ELC provides a wide range of resources and services to various stakeholders, including families, school officials, policymakers, and community organizations. The purpose of our project was to analyze the ELC website, including its strengths and weaknesses, as well as to provide suggestions for improvement.

Our report focused on making recommendations to ELC’s overall website organization, design, and structure, including specific priority areas, such as Special Education, Bullying and Harassment, and Exclusionary Discipline. Through meetings with an ELC attorney, we learned that these priority areas were ELC’s most sought-after materials. While most parents use ELC’s Hotline number to inquire about issues, it is important that ELC’s website provides parents and other users with accessible information needed to assist in advocating for students and promoting equal opportunities to learn.

This project is a second installment in the Clinic’s work on making legal web sites more accessible to the public. Last year, a team developed a set of recommendations to enhance the web site of Philadelphia’s Common Pleas and Municipal Courts. While the context was different, the basic thrust of both efforts was the same: online legal materials are most useful to the public when they are easy to find, directly responsive to users’ actual needs, and presented in simple, easily understandable formats and language.