Court forms commence processes that change lives. They end marriages, bankrupt people and throw them in jail. Poorly designed forms can lead to errors with similarly serious consequences. Making court and legal forms clearer, easier to use and more beautiful can reduce error rates and ultimately increase citizen’s access to a just legal system. But form designers stepping into the legal sphere should be aware of some of the law’s idiosyncrasies. In this post I set out three such peculiarities of legal forms – (1) Form content is dictated by rules; (2) There are more than two parties involved in most forms; and (3) The law is serious business.
Form design in the law
The Court system is replete with forms. Whether you’re filing for a divorce, appealing a speeding fine, challenging an eviction notice or chasing a debt, you will bump up against forms. Most are long, confusing and dull.
Bad form design leads to user error, additional cost and delay. When signing up to your utility provider, that might mean you need to wait 24 hours before your internet is connected. The stakes of error in the law are typically higher – your broadband connection is moot if you’ve been evicted from your flat because you ticked the wrong box on the court’s application form.
Most businesses, and indeed many progressive bureaucracies, revamp their forms to keep the modern consumer satisfied. They critically assess what information the organisation really needs from the user and remove redundant questions. They update instructions and remove confusing fine print. They redesign the question order so that they flow more logically. They sign post, change font sizes and add colour so the user experience is smooth and even (in all seriousness, I think) ‘delightful’.
User-centred design, UX, UI and other design thinking has begun to seep into the legal sphere over the last few years (see examples of legal design in the law: Stanford Legal Design Lab; WTF is legal design; Contract visualisation). Some good work has even been done on legal forms in some progressive jurisdictions (see HM courts).
But change in culture, technology and practices in the legal profession is slower than in other industries. That slow pace is reflected in the poor design of many court and other legal forms.
So let’s say we want to dive into form redesign in the law to make court forms easier to navigate, reduce error rates and ultimately increase citizen’s access to legal remedies. What additional challenges in form design apply specifically to the law, which are not present in B2C form design or other bureaucratic forms?
I can think of three challenges:
1 – Form content is dictated in rules
First, the content of many legal forms is prescribed in legislation and practice rules. In other words, many legal forms contain specific content because the law literally specifies that it must.
For example, Form N244 is an application form used in the UK court system. It is typically dull. Anecdotally, at least, self-represented litigants struggle to correctly complete it. Peruse it for a minute and you can see why. Some of the questions seem redundant, others unclear and other inordinately wide in scope. Question 3 asks the user to identify what orders they want made and ‘why’. A small box is provided to the user to answer a question of seemingly large scope. If given a clean slate, a form designer might reform this question in many different ways, such as asking the user to first categorise the type of application they are making, then selecting from a number of pre-filled options before giving a space for a more targeted response to the question of ‘why’. These redesigned questions could be signposted or color coded to increase usability and comprehension.
But dig a little deeper into Form N244 and you discover that these questions are part of the minimum content prescribed in the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR). Part 23.6 of the CPR provides that “[a]n application notice must state: (a) what order the applicant is seeking; and (b) briefly, why the applicant is seeking the order.” That question 3 appears to be a direct result of this requirement. Dig even further into the Practice Directions and you bump into section 2.1 of Practice Direction 23A, which lists a further five minimum requirements of an application notice, some of which are also shoehorned back into form N244 in not so imaginative ways.
So if ever there was a requirement that couldn’t be ignored or altered by a form designer, one literally prescribed in the procedural rules is going to be it.
The fact that form content is so prescribed does not mean that significant redesign could nonetheless be undertaken around those constraints. Questions can be moved and sign posted on a form. Better layout, font and spacing could be adopted and better user guidelines could be incorporated. In the long run, the practice directions and legislative rules could be amended too. However such changes are a political exercise and take time. It is a tougher journey for a form designer, I imagine, than the already challenging task of changing the minds of a single management team in a private company.
2 – More than two parties
Second is that court forms typically involve at least three distinct parties, rather than just an individual and an organisation.
In a B2C landscape, the form is an interface between two parties – the user who completes the form, and the company which takes the information from the form. In that instance, the information analysis is limited to determining what information the company needs from the user, and what is the best way to get it. In the court system, there is a similar interface between a user (the person completing the form) and a large institution (the court and its administrative arm). Some of the information on a form will be needed by the court, such as contact details, case reference numbers and logistical details of any court hearings. Some of that information may already be in the Court’s database. If the re-design analysis was limited to what information the Court needed, many of these questions would be omitted.
But unlike in a B2C environment, in court forms there is typically also a third party involved in the transaction – namely, the respondent (or ‘Defendant’, or other title as the case may be). This may be the husband who is being divorced; the landlord who owns the rental property; the debtor who hasn’t paid their invoice. That third party needs information from the form too. They will need much of the information that the court may already have on its database, but that the respondent does not have access to. They will also often need additional information than the court administrators may not need, such as the factual particulars of the claim (ie. what the applicant is alleging against them). They will also want to know what they need to do in response to the form – Can they object? How long do they have to do so?
Again, the needs of a further party is not an insurmountable hurdle to effective form re-design in the courts. It is just one further layer that needs to be considered in a form re-design exercise.
3 – The gravitas of the law
Third is that special something in the law – that x factor. Without a background in the industry, a form designer might struggle to understand the reticence of an older judiciary or administrators to support a redesigned form which is simpler, clearer and more beautiful, and a reform which on its face is clearly a better product for the citizens the judiciary is supposed to serve. But that attitude could be partly explained by considering the following.
In most B2C settings, a company wants to remove all friction points between themselves and their customers, make forms beautiful (or completely eliminate them), and make the user experience delightful. But, as they say, the law is a serious business. Legal forms, in particular applications, writs and appeals, start processes that can seriously affect the lives of the applicants and their respondents – they can bankrupt people, prevent them from seeing their children, or throw them in prison. There may be a reticence amongst some practitioners to overly beautify this part of the legal process. Often the form is literally the first notice the respondent has that a claim has been brought against them. In this context the form itself is not just a tool to convey relevant information – it is itself part of the legal process. There may be an inclination that these forms should reflect the gravity of the consequences of the processes they spawn. That might mean the retention of a court seal or of archaic but weighty language. It might mean that colour, font and layout design is muted, even at the expense of some usability.
Whether court forms should or should not be restrained by such formality is debatable. But for form designers venturing into the legal realm, being aware of these notions will help you better understand some of the resistance you may encounter along the way.