Making Court Information Understandable

The “consumers” in our civil justice system are members of the public. And yet the information that courts provide to their consumers has been difficult if not impossible for them to understand. Forms and instructions, typically written by lawyers, are filled with jargon known only to other lawyers. Notices and orders tend to follow the same pattern. And court web sites, which may be the first stop for an unrepresented litigant seeking information (or someone trying to help that litigant), are often organized in ways that do not at all fit the thought processes of people without legal training. (Would a divorced parent trying to learn how to ask for more time with her children think to look first for “Common Pleas,” then “Family Division,” then “Domestic Relations”?)

But this consumer-unfriendly pattern is starting to change. Courts around the country are beginning to work with design professionals, to solicit input from actual users, to replace jargon with plain language, and to address the needs for translation and for accommodations for disabilities. With these efforts in mind, we have collaborated with the First Judicial District in an exploration of how its own web site might be improved.

We began with user testing, in which we played the roles of members of the public seeking specific kinds of information from the site and took note of the “pain points” and dead ends that we sometimes encountered. We examined other court sites for ideas that we might want to borrow. We collaborated for an entire semester with a design professor and his students at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, who helped us understand how the site could be made more useful through visual changes. We have shared our recommendations with the First Judicial District, and are hopeful that more work on this project is in our future.