People Remember How You Made Them Feel, Part 2 – The Courts

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

In my September post, I used a famous Maya Angelou quote as food for thought on how lawyers can better serve their clients: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. That quote could be a downright call to action in the context of the courts and how people without lawyers experience the current system.

To put it mildly, we can do a lot better. And this is no academic exercise it’s critical to the future of access to justice.

The Journey Map Concept

With Maya Angelou’s famous quote in mind, in my recent posts I’ve referenced the importance of mapping a client’s journey in order to improve client service by lawyers. Looking at the courts through the lens of the people who use the system is also a good place to start for improving the experience of people without lawyers.

There is no getting around the fact that the reasons many people need to use the courts often involve confusing, stressful and/or very personal issues. We don’t need to make it worse though, and there are so many self-inflicted ways we do that in the current construct of the court system.

In the health care arena, another area where people often come into the system confused and under stress, the Mayo Clinic has been a leader in building better systems based on journey maps of their patient experience. Mayo and others that have taken that plunge have shown that it is not only possible to significantly improve their patient experience, it leads to better and more efficient outcomes as well.

Margaret Hagan of Open Law Lab is one of many who recommend a similar approach to the legal system, and all of us holding leadership roles in the bar, the courts, and in the broader legal community should make it a priority to do so.

Looking at the court system journey through the eyes of someone without a lawyer

When we take a step back and look from start to finish at the court system through the eyes of a layperson forced to navigate it on their own, the list of preventable challenges gets very long very quickly.

The starting point is looking at what a prospective litigant sees before coming into the system, whether that is affirmatively filing a suit or being served with papers requiring them to participate. Either way, it’s a lot of arcane legal language and overly complicated procedure that literally was made for another era. The terminology alone can make someone’s eyes water, and to what end other than that it is the way we’ve always done it?

Next comes filing the necessary court papers and paying the fees or asking for a fee waiver for those who qualify. As the Circuit Court of Cook County and the rest of the state courts get closer to joining the 21st century by moving to e-filing in January of 2018  and finally start the process of retiring carbon paper in the courts once and for all  this step could get a lot better or a lot worse for people without lawyers depending on how it is implemented. For the many people who have access to a computer and the ability to use the technology, this will be a liberating step that can save time and unnecessary trips to the court. For the many others who don’t have that technology access or know-how, it will create whole new frustrations and barriers to access if the courts don’t provide viable alternatives and the necessary resources and assistance for people who can e-file with some help.

Assuming people can get their court papers filed, it too often is not made very clear to them what the next steps are in their case. Obviously, that will vary by the type of case involved, but it usually is another confusing moment.

The next interaction with the process is actually coming to the courthouse (if it did not already happen for the filing of papers). As all who have been to court can attest, the first contact for court patrons is typically the Sheriff(s) providing security, and it is generally a very intimidating experience for someone who already is usually nervous about the reason they are there in the first place. For a typical person expecting to see modern signage and guidance for where they need to go or where they might be able to get help navigating the process, chances are they won’t find it.

Going into the courtroom and understanding what to do next often can be a daunting experience for people without lawyers as well. Again, useful signs and guidance are usually hard to find. A clerk barking out instructions that incorrectly assume people know what is happening is the more likely scenario.

And while there can be multiple court appearances and many other steps required, one other stage worth noting is what happens after a judge makes a ruling. Most lawyers know what an order is and that they need to prepare it. For someone not familiar with the process or how to draft an order, this again is usually very intimidating. And people may or may not know what they need to do next in their case when they leave the courtroom.

This is more than an academic exercise

It does not take a lot of imagination to reach the conclusion that someone going through the court process may not feel great about it at any stage. And that has consequences for access to justice that go far beyond hurt feelings.

The National Center on State Courts is among many who have documented through research that the public’s view of the justice system is driven more by how they are treated than whether they win or lose their case.

As the Center for Court Innovation notes, the perception of procedural justice can be even more important than the outcome: Research has shown that when court users perceive the justice system to be fair, they are more likely to comply with court orders and follow the law in the future regardless of the outcome of their case.

A better way

There are a number of concrete steps the courts can take with the help of the broader legal community to make the court process a much better experience for people without lawyers. While there has been some good progress since then, a 2012 Study of the Daley Center by graduate students at IIT Institute of Design on improving the experience for people without lawyers still resonates today. There are many lessons from the Mayo Clinic and other disciplines we can borrow as well.

The courts in Illinois are showing leadership to recognize and address this fundamental problem, highlighted by the work of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, the Civil Justice Division of Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and the CBF/Circuit Court Pro Se Advisory Committee. In fact, the new Commission Strategic Plan adopted earlier this year appropriately makes the goal of improving the experience of people without lawyers the central priority.

So there is some positive momentum in Illinois for sure, but a long way to go. The transformation necessary to get the proverbial ball over the goal line will require a full commitment of all stakeholders in the system, and will remain one of the core priorities for the CBF.

Because people really do remember how you made them feel, and in the context of the court system, that is critical for all of us to remember in the quest to improve access to justice.