Unveiling a New Toolkit to Modernize Civil Court Filing Tools

An access to justice crisis currently grips the U.S. legal system. Roughly three-quarters of the millions of civil cases filed in the U.S. each year involve at least one self-represented litigant trying to navigate our dense, complex legal system alone. A 2019 report from the California State Bar found that 55% of households had faced at least one legal issue in the previous year, yet more than 85% of them received no or inadequate legal help. Many of these cases are significant, even life-altering moments: debt disputes, evictions, domestic violence, or a former partner behind on child support.

Part of the problem is that court users must wrestle with outdated, opaque, and difficult-to-use filing tools. While user-friendly tools are already ubiquitous for public benefits applications and tax filings, the picture is very different for court filing technology. Some courts require that users fill out PDFs directly to generate primary legal forms. Other courts have guided interview tools that create user forms, but they often involve highly technical legal language and add procedural hurdles like requiring physical (“wet”) signatures or notarization. Other courts have tools that are expensive and difficult to maintain, which has caused them to become outdated or error-prone.

These filing tools have been a burden on litigants and courts alike. Some court users need help finding the information they need, others are intimidated by court form complexity and language, and barriers like in-person notarization requirements or cumbersome electronic filing systems deter others. This results in worse substantive outcomes for litigants with otherwise valid claims, assuming they engage with the legal process at all. When litigants complete legal filings using these tools, clerks must often manually enter data into difficult-to-use systems, and judges frequently receive incorrect or irrelevant information.

The Filing Fairness Toolkit: Encouraging User-Friendly, Modernized Technology

The Filing Fairness Project—an ambitious, multi-jurisdictional effort to modernize court filing processes and improve access to courts and the administration of justice by leveraging readily available technology—has been working to address these challenges.

  1.  Standardize Filing Systems: The first recommendation suggests courts adopt and encourage modern data standards for electronic filing platforms. This standardization enhances maintenance and integration with vendors, particularly those serving self-represented litigants.
  2. Encourage a Diverse Service Ecosystem: The second recommendation advocates for a diverse ecosystem of service partners by working with vendors using various business models. Establishing precise vendor requirements ensures alignment with the court’s access to justice values, minimizing limitations of any single business model and promoting fair e-filing access.
  3. Governance and Procurement Best Practices: The third recommendation emphasizes governance and procurement best practices for filing system technology, including adopting a formalized certification process for vendor contracts and addressing specific provisions for future integration costs, recognizing that decisions in these areas have long-term implications for court infrastructure and problem resolution.
  4. Enhance User Experience: The final recommendation focuses on improving the user experience with easy-to-use digital form preparation and filing tools. Suggestions include reducing legal jargon, allowing electronic signatures, and providing virtual and in-person support resources for court users. These recommendations, unlike previous ones, are specifically directed at enhancing the experience of individuals interacting with the court system.

Began as a Stanford Law School Policy Lab in 2021, the project has engaged seven state court partners—Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia—to collaborate across jurisdictions to improve their forms and filing systems, and it previously brought state court partners and technology providers together to discuss how to tackle these problems. This toolkit is a culmination of those efforts.

The Filing Fairness Toolkit offers several concrete recommendations that prescribe clear actions for courts to modernize their systems. Courts can leverage modern standards and contracting practices by following these recommendations to promote sustainable, easy-to-find-and-use filing tools. To this end, the toolkit focuses on four key areas of change.

It’s worth noting that these recommendations are not just for IT professionals. Many recommendations are directed explicitly at judges, court administrators, and other decision-makers. Nor are the recommendations directed at courts at a particular level of technological maturity. Courts that are in both the early and more advanced stages of their filing modernization efforts will find helpful features in the toolkit, including concrete recommendations, a diagnostic tool, maturity models that describe moderate, sound, better, and advanced stages of progress, and examples of successful solutions implemented in various state courts. 

Source: Stanford Law School



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