Providing legal information to court users is an essential function of civil courts, and California's redesigned online legal assistance portal is an effort to fulfill that critical role. Increased use of the state’s new portal highlights the importance of offering litigants resources that can improve court efficiency and help those involved in lawsuits better understand their options and possible next steps.
The portal, which was extensively tested, has been a success: 70% of users so far report that the content has been "helpful," according to a feedback widget at the bottom of every page. From September 2021 through July 2022, the site served more than 1.1 million users total, and the number of monthly users has more than quadrupled. When comparing the new portal with the separate self-help pages on the court's website, more users return to the portal and are less likely to leave the website without viewing additional pages.
Court staff have reported that the plain language descriptions of court forms have been helpful when describing forms to litigants at court. The Judicial Council of California (JCC), the policymaking body of the California courts, has hired its first web content attorney, whose mission is to develop legally accurate and user-friendly legal information.
The JCC team designed the portal to amplify and better leverage the knowledge of staff who provide free legal advice to litigants not represented by attorneys. This effort began in 2018, when a work group convened to look at how to use technology to improve how litigants without lawyers use the courts. A year later, the JCC brought together a team of civil legal technologists to begin developing a new legal assistance portal and conducting user research. The team's early findings—based on interviews with court users, visits on-site, and meetings with court staff—showed that while online services are important, a portal would not succeed if it existed separately from the court's existing self-help infrastructure. In 2020, the system launched a beta site with five topics. By identifying priorities, sticking points, and needs in partnership with those who worked with court users, the JCC began the project with a robust, well-informed foundation.
“Self-help is a priority for the Judicial Council of California,” said Robert Oyung, the JCC’s chief operating officer. “The basic premise of providing legal information to self-represented litigants is procedural justice: If people have an understanding of the process, they’re more likely to be confident in the outcome. The portal is designed to demystify legal procedures and to make our courts more accessible and equitable for all who use them.”
From the start, JCC leadership played a key role in getting buy-in from courts throughout the state and prioritized learning from on-the-ground experts how best to provide legal information online. County trial court executive officers, presiding judges, and self-help managers (experts in providing legal information) helped the portal team access courthouses and members of the public a vital step in ensuring that the team was responsive to feedback it received.
The state rolled out the revamped portal in phases to allow for testing and a more manageable public introduction. Informed by Google Analytics data from the existing self-help site—as well as information from in-person self-help visits, filings, and repeat visitors to self-help centers—the portal included just five topics in its first redesigned phase: divorce, small claims, eviction, domestic violence, and consumer debt. These topics covered 70% of all self-help center encounters and about 58% of all civil filings involving individuals in the state.
The portal team wanted to test the most high-volume needs and revise resources based on findings. For each of the five topics, analysts tested the pages with self-help staff, court users, and JusticeCorps members. JusticeCorps is part of an AmeriCorps program based in the California courts and participants help people navigating court cases without a lawyer. An individual from the portal team would have court users navigate the website to their place in the legal process and see if they could find the information needed to take their next steps. Afterwards, the users would answer questions about their experience using the site, including whether they found what they needed. The JusticeCorps members helped the portal team understand the kinds of mistakes litigants typically made; the members also described how they explained legal issues and topics to self-help visitors and offered the team site update recommendations.
Now that those key sections have been fully developed and translated into Spanish, the remainder of the original site is being revised into the new format and will have a total of 11 topics.
The new format includes step-by-step instructions for various case types, such as divorce, one of the first topics tested. Incorporating user feedback, the process guide spells out four steps. The user can click through each step for more information or choose to access all the relevant forms on one page. On every page, there's an icon with a thumbs up or a thumbs down that allows users to provide feedback and, on some, another box that users can click to interact with a chat bot to find information and forms.
With each round of testing and research, portal developers refined the resources and navigation tools, and reported findings to court leadership. Users have responded well: in May 2021, nearly 80% of those seeking divorce information who provided feedback say the site was “helpful” when responding to a “Was this helpful?” prompt at the bottom of the page. The portal was designed to be accessible to people without computers with a mobile-first design, meaning that the portal was developed for mobile devices first and then larger screens, and to reach people from various backgrounds. For example, it provides Spanish translations completed by professionals and approved by bilingual attorneys.
“Working with experts in user-centric web design, we were able to translate known court user needs to also help users navigate online access to their courts with the portal,” said Bonnie Rose Hough, principal managing attorney for the JCC’s Center for Families, Children & the Courts. "We began by focusing on users’ discrete tasks and needs, and as we expanded the portal’s offerings, we built out new modules. This also helped manage the workload and the deployment more effectively, and now the state’s in-person and online self-help options complement and support one another. The portal’s development model will enable us to expand and enhance our online offerings to support court users going forward as we continue to enhance access for court users in courts and online.”
By focusing on the user experience, equal access, flexibility, and transparency, the revamped website aligns with recent Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators national guidelines on developing court technology and Pew's Ask, Refine, Learn, Connect criteria for portals. California’s legal portal is an example for how courts can provide accessible information online by partnering with the existing self-help infrastructure to meet user needs and by testing resources to ensure their utility.
Casey Chiappetta works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization project.