Students in the Access to Justice Clinic spent some time this year studying the web site of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court (collectively, the First Judicial District, or FJD). Because our focus is on getting more legal information and help to people who need it, we explored the site from the perspective of the public rather than that of legal professionals. We were especially interested in whether unrepresented folks and those who help them (friends, family, community partners) would find the site helpful.
Students summarized their observations in a set of slides, Redesign of the FJD Website, as well as a more detailed report. And, in a cross-campus collaboration, students of Prof. Bryan Satalino (Tyler School of Art and Architecture) came up with visual design ideas for the site.
As all the students quickly recognized, unrepresented people who visit a court web site are typically looking for a concrete answer – for example, how to respond to (or file) a landlord-tenant or small-claims complaint, how to modify a child support or custody order, how to deal with a debt-collection case, or how to obtain a court record. But many sites do not lead with answers to these sorts of questions. Instead, they “welcome” visitors with complex descriptions of court structures and processes, lists of administrative orders, compilations of oddly-named forms and rules, and other material that may not seem relevant — and may be overwhelming and even scary.
To its credit, the First Judicial District is taking a different approach. Just last week, Municipal Court unveiled reorganized pages designed to take people quickly to the information they need, and to communicate information in friendlier, more understandable language. (Check out the new landlord-tenant case page for an example.) Common Pleas Court has made significant improvements on its pages as well, with more to come.
Providing user-friendly information on court web sites is just a step toward narrowing the “justice gap,” but it’s an important step. We applaud the FJD for its efforts, and we appreciate its openness to hearing community voices, including those of our students.