Putting users at the heart of public legal information and the online court
We know from our work on Meeting the information needs of litigants in person, and insight gained from litigants in person through guide pilots, post-publication feedback surveys, unsolicited questions via the Advicenow website and guide reviews that litigants in person need effective information to help them:
- Understand the role of the court
- Understand and follow process
- Understand legal language
- Understand the law
- Apply the law to their case and evaluate it
- Develop skills, for example, preparing, filing and serving documents, engaging and negotiating with the other side, and speaking succinctly and confidently in court
- Adopt attitudes, such as objectivity and confidence
Also through the overview we gain from maintaining the Going to Court or Tribunal hub and our top picks information service we know that many of these key information needs are not being met, or need to be covered to a higher standard, particularly bearing in mind that anxiety and unfamiliarity impede our ability to take on new information.
Despite some good work to improve clarity in information resources for litigants in person over the last few years, language is still a key issue in many materials. There is much more that can be done in information for LIPS to explain unfamiliar terminology, unpack concepts, avoid the professional vocabulary, and be more direct and precise.
It is also important to design information for LIPS based on a behaviourally realistic view of how litigants use information, rather than with an ideal citizen in mind, someone who conscientiously reads and understands everything we want them to from start to finish, and is able to do everything we expect.
Unsolicited feedback via Advicenow website
“I want to represent myself in court … for work rights and I want to know the first steps I have to take for the court.(my English is poor but I want try).”
“I haven’t been able to send it or get it off computer up until end of last week I thought I had lost in on my email and just couldn’t face going thru it all again but found it and in the same position? have no one to help me I AM 64 and quite intelligent but am not computer literate.”
Law for Life believes that information should focus on the sections of the audience with the least level of capability as that section is the one we are most likely to lose, and who are likely to have the most to lose. Litigants in person with more knowledge and understanding won’t mind having things spelled out.
So, as well as using clear and understandable language we also need to acknowledge the reality of how people use information, and the diversity of their needs, by, for example, providing ‘quick start’ information, clearer signposting, intuitive sequencing, more worked examples, checklists and flowcharts, and information in other formats such as film.
LIP feedback on Advicenow family court guides
“I find the guides incredibly helpful and accessible. The tone is warm and familiar but not too informal or patronising. The guides cover very confusing, complicated legal processes and explain them in a way that makes them much easier to understand. For example, the guides break down the elements of the processes into manageable steps. They use diagrams. They give comprehensive examples and scenarios, to ‘walk you through’ all the stages. Making these processes and institutions understandable in turn makes you feel more empowered to sort out problems and be in control. Sorting out family separation and for example child care arrangements is emotionally draining enough as it is. The fact that the legal system and legal institutions seem complicated, bureaucratic and impenetrable add to this feeling. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the guides have felt like a ‘god send’.”
Feedback from litigants in person has always highlighted how the stress of facing an unfamiliar and complicated legal system, together with emotions caused by the legal problem in the first place, affect people’s ability to tackle their problem and use information. So it is vital that public legal information addresses how people feel and what attitudes they need to adopt to resolve the dispute.
LIP review of Advicenow mediation guide
“I didn’t know what to expect from mediation and was nervous about facing up to difficult conversations with my ex. This helped me to prepare for the sessions and go in feeling more confident.”
LIP review of PIP appeal guide and letter tool
“I have worked for 30 years as a legal secretary and in general do not have difficulty in letter writing. But my current illnesses holds me back from letter construction and being that I know this is the way forward becomes a major obstacle in my mind. This leaves me procrastinating on what to do next to the point of feeling stressed that I eventually give up any hope of appeal! I therefore found the letter construction as hugely helpful – this after all, as I well know, is the basis of any appeal, being able to put forward coherent information.”
It is for all these reasons that we believe it is immensely important to consult litigants in person or those that work closely with them at the beginning of the information production process, so that information for litigants can be engineered around their needs, rather than simply trying to make the language clearer at the end. At Law for Life Advicenow we do this as continuing cycle of consultation, piloting, feedback and review.
More detail on reflecting the views of litigant in person in the information production process is set out in a quick start guide in our publication Meeting the information needs of litigants in person.
 Difficult forms: How government agencies interact with citizens, 2003, National Audit Office, http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2003/10/02031145es.pdf
Published: 29 January 2019