More Americans than ever before are representing themselves in court, propelled by skyrocketing attorney costs. In big cities, between 70% and 90% of people who go to court for domestic abuse or the loss of their home do so without a lawyer, according to statistics from California and New York. Also, while most courts and legal aid organizations have created Web storefronts where legal forms can be downloaded in seconds, these forms still use complex, often baffling terminology. So people frequently fill them out incorrectly, forcing clerks to redirect and judges to throw out scores of cases.
The government and the legal system are slow to innovate. But a team of both design and law students from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) used the latest methods in consumer-focused design to create a powerful tool: the A2J (Access to Justice) Author. This is an interactive software tool with a dynamic digital guide, a 3D avatar on your computer screen that helps you fill out legal forms. A2J Author makes it cheaper, easier, and faster for Americans to represent themselves in court for divorce, small claims, child support, domestic abuse, and landlord-tenant disputes. Courts and legal aid offices in Illinois and Idaho now use A2J Author, and at least 10 other states plan to roll it out in 2007.THE RESEARCH
To create A2J Author, the team from IIT first scrutinized how businesses are being reorganized to get closer to customer needs. They wanted to use the same methodology to redesign family and small claims courts to make them accessible to more people. In August, 2000, a group of 13 law students and 5 graduate design students, led by Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Ronald Staudt, Design Professor Charles Owens, and researchers from the National Center for State Courts started visiting courthouses in Illinois, Colorado, California, and Delaware. "We wanted to stand in everyone's moccasins," said Staudt.
So they arrived before the court doors opened in the morning and spoke with people about why they were representing themselves. They set up camp in the clerks' offices and snapped photos and audiotaped hours of court customers coming in bewildered by divorce forms and eviction papers. They interviewed lawyers, judges, and court staff about the time they spent dealing with administrative confusion instead of processing people's cases.
The team found that the major obstacles to gaining easy access to the legal system were cost and complexity. The cost of lawyers for litigants and the cost of reforming obsolete court systems were very high. The complexity of the legal system, from the jargon-ridden forms to the maze-like courthouses, intimidated many people.PROTOTYPING
For the next phase, four law students worked with 18 design students. They split into teams and came up with 59 solutions -- everything from a folder that could organize your court papers to a "case card" that could be swiped anywhere in the courthouse to pull up case details and send them to the judge. The card also gives you directions in your own language and helps you pay fees.
Under the guidance of a Chicago design firm, IA Collaborative, the team then combined four of the solutions to create the A2J pilot. Once people click to the A2J home page, the avatar guide -- wearing a grey shirt and black slacks -- appears. After they enter a name and gender, their individual avatar pops up as well, clutching a virtual case folder. The guide asks a series of questions aloud about family, income, and other salient details. These are also spelled out in a speech bubble. Once the person types in an answer, both user and guide walk to the next question, marked with a signpost on a blue, green, orange, yellow, or pink circle on a road leading to a virtual courthouse. At every step, people can click on any legal term -- say, "good faith" -- to get a definition in everyday language. Once the pair reach the virtual courthouse, the program puts the responses into the appropriate slots on the legal form and prints out ready-to-file copies. The first prototype the team developed allowed people to dissolve marriages. They tested it in courts in Cook County, Ill. People liked using it.DISTRIBUTION
In 2006, Idaho started developing A2J Author for all of its court documents. Valley Crisis Center, in Nampa, Idaho, was one of the first places to promote the software. The first client Katrina Rhoades, a case manager, recommended it to was a woman, a victim of domestic abuse. She had little computer experience but was able to use A2J Author. If she'd failed at it, she would have been referred to legal aid. Women in her situation in Idaho typically wait four to six weeks before they can meet with an attorney. While they wait, many often stay in a shelter and need to get a protection order to keep their violent partner at bay. Using A2J Author, this woman filled out her divorce forms in 30 minutes and filed them herself the next day.
The promise of A2J Author is that it's incredibly customizable. Law students and legal aid services staff work closely with judges and lawyers in each district or state to author the scripts and appropriate questions for each type of form. Since all that is needed is a browser, the tool has been in high demand. Someone could be in a soup kitchen or in a hamlet thousands of miles away from a legal aid office and still obtain and fill out the forms needed to file their case. The National Legal Services Document Assembly Server started using A2J because it is a more user-friendly interface to gather and filter data. In 2007, the online guides will speak Spanish and other languages. It could even make it easier to complete tax returns. By Aili McConnon