Better information needed at court

You buy a piece of flat-pack furniture, take it home and start to assemble it. You read the instructions carefully, but they aren’t clear, and you get increasingly frustrated as you try to puzzle out how to put the thing together.

Hours later, after several false starts, but with some help from friends, you finally manage to get the job done. If only the instructions had been clearer; it would have saved so much time and effort.

But imagine you’re involved in something altogether more serious – a court case. The stakes are much higher, you may be at risk of losing your home, or access to your children. You’re on unfamiliar territory, it’s very stressful, and more than anything you need clear guidance on procedures and clear instructions on how to fill in court forms. In such a serious situation, surely you can expect clear and helpful guidance on how to proceed?

Sadly, you are likely to be disappointed. A recent review of Court Service forms and guidance reveals significant failings.

The review, undertaken by the Advicenow team at Advice Services Alliance was commissioned by the Civil Justice Council in response to concerns about the impact of an increase in the number of self represented litigants at court as a result of legal aid cuts. The report will soon be available on the Civil Justice Council website.

Advicenow’s findings

Advicenow undertook a survey of people who work with self representing litigants, and assessed a sample of court forms and associated notes and leaflets using the methodology of their Better Information Handbook. Their conclusions paint a worrying picture of ineffective guidance and poor quality information across the wide range of court service documentation.

The report is commendably restrained in its account of the current situation but one of the information experts involved has commented that court forms and associated guidance were ‘the worst set of public documents I’ve ever seen’.

The central finding of the review is that court forms and guidance don’t address the needs of self represented litigants and are more geared towards the needs of professionals within the justice system.

But they don’t even do that very well. Professionals struggle with the forms too, as illustrated by the response of one advice worker who commented,

‘The new bankruptcy form has become impossible to complete for the litigant in person – and for us.’

The report highlights the many ways in which the forms and guidance could be improved.

  • The purpose of documents needs to be made clear.
  • There’s a need to set the scene and explain the context of forms and processes.
  • Technical terms and concepts should be explained with jargon busters
  • The tone of the materials should be made less formal and excluding.
  • Guidance should give examples, and use a variety of design techniques like diagrams, flow charts and case studies which would accommodate different learning styles.
  • Signposting to other information and sources of help is inadequate and could be significantly improved.
  • Most inexplicably, online forms are very hard if not impossible to find – even when you know what you want.

The Court Service clearly faces a daunting task in sorting this out; procedures are complicated and there is a multiplicity of forms. But a start needs to be made and Advicenow’s recommendations provide a very practical way forward.

The report emphasises that the Court Service needs to be clear about who their information is for, and the purpose it serves. Big improvements could be made simply by putting the needs of self represented litigants first when producing documents. These improvements would not require huge investment. The excellent guidance produced by Advicenow for the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau shows what can be done. See RCJ Advice Bureau and Advicenow – Going to Court.

Above all, there’s a need to make a start by improving and testing key forms and guidance in order to provide an example of what better information would be like. This would begin the process of setting standards and building the expertise needed to provide court users with the guidance they deserve.

Incalculable cost

The cost of the current situation is incalculable. Add together the time spent by litigants struggling to complete forms; the cost and delays to the court system as a result of wrongly completed forms; the time wasted by court staff and the judiciary; the time lawyers and advisers spend struggling with forms; the list goes on.

Poor information is very very expensive.

Published: 12 November 2012

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