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Improving court forms, expanding access to justice

Improving court forms, expanding access to justice

For many, forms are the entry point to the civil legal system. They help advance procedural justice by increasing transparency, understanding and a person’s opportunity to be heard. They also let people tell their stories in a way the court can address.

“Most court users are unable to draft pleadings from scratch without the help of a lawyer. Forms allow litigants without counsel to file pleadings and motions that are legally sufficient,” says Lonni Summers, an NCSC senior court management consultant.

Well-designed forms help the court, the public and justice partners. Standardized forms help court staff process filings more efficiently. They make it easier for legal aid programs and court help centers to assist self-represented litigants. Yet, form development and design can sometimes be overlooked.

One way Summers and NCSC are bringing more attention to forms is through Forms Camp 2022, which begins today. Forms Camp is a free webinar series that provides guidance from national experts and hands-on working sessions where participants will review real forms and discuss ways to improve them.

Summers recommends that courts regularly review all forms, paying particular attention to several key elements:

  • Plain language - Use words that regular people understand. Clear and concise source documents make it easier to translate forms into languages other than English.
  • Design - Avoid placing too much text on a single page. A wall of text is stressful. White space helps guide users to important information, encourages users to keep reading, and gives the brain a break. Font size is also vital to ensure readability.
  • Ease of use - Design them for non-lawyers. Ask a few regular people to test drive your forms. User testing can ensure they meet the needs of the people who use them.

NCSC has worked with the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts and Probation and its largest jurisdiction, Douglas County, to assess the effectiveness of assistance provided to self-represented litigants in domestic relations cases. Survey findings revealed that self-represented litigants had difficulty understanding legal terms and navigating the court website to locate information and complete forms.

“We have made significant progress, and this was only possible because of NCSC's feedback and resources,” said Amy Prenda, Nebraska’s deputy administrator for court services. “We have started to build a framework of changes to our website and forms that we plan to implement in the very near future. We have also implemented the guidelines and plain language principles within Court Services Division, applying them to any new resources or communication we create.”

To learn more about NCSC’s Access to Justice consulting services, visit ncsc.org/a2j.

International forum featured discussions on open data standards, digital transformation

Earlier this month, NCSC hosted the Justice in the Americas Forum as a part of the IX Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. A collaboration with CEJA and Mexico Evalua, and with the support of Open Government Partnership, the forum focused on open justice - through open data standards - and digital transformation as key elements to democratic strengthening in the region.

Participants included judicial leaders and civil society representatives from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and the U.S.

Throughout the event, NCSC shared how its National Open Data Standards serve as an engine to advance open justice initiatives in the U.S. and around the world.