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The importance of human-centered design for legal services

What’s the problem with accessing justice, and how can design help?

The legal system has a design problem

Even if you’ve never read the research on problems with the legal system [1], you don’t have to be an academic to know that legal problems are complex and frustrating. Most of us know from personal or anecdotal experiences that there’s nothing enjoyable about going to court, or filling out paperwork, or reading things you can’t understand without a law degree.

But even though the legal system is complex and burdensome, that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved to better meet client needs. And the good news is, a lot of the problems with legal services are uniquely suited to design solutions.

Design Challenge 1: Legal problems don’t occur in isolation

The majority of my legal education was spent looking at relatively straightforward hypothetical legal problems and working out the best way to apply the law to the facts. But when I started getting practical experience at community legal centres that dealt with homelessness, family violence, and youth issues, my experience was that the law can only solve a small part of their complex problem. Sometimes the best I could do is refer people to another support service.

Design Challenge 2: Legal problems are linked to increased disadvantage

That increased legal problems are linked to increased indicators of disadvantage is nothing new. Any legal aid lawyer, case worker, or advocate can share their stories of seeing clients returning with similar issues, often due to systemic injustices or socio-economic factors. What this means in terms of design solutions is that problems cluster, but the solutions are often disparate and singular. Return clients need more from their legal services than band-aid fixes.

Design Challenge 3: The customer experience of legal services hasn’t kept up

There are really innovative design solutions being implemented in retail, entertainment, banking, and even the postal service — changes that could be applied to the justice sector. But due to the traditional nature of the law, and chronically underfunded legal aid organisations, many of these improvements won’t reach the legal sector.

How HCD can help

If design is the process of creatively and strategically solving problems, human-centred design (HCD) is an approach that puts the people affected by the problems at the centre of the solution. It begins with a focus on the people who would use a service, system, product, or technology to understand their needs and then iteratively experiment to develop a solution. HCD has been applied successfully to complex problems in a range of fields, from helping students co-design their own education experience to informing solutions that help prevent chronic diseases. [2]

Legal design is the application of HCD to the legal sector. It’s about creating intentional interactions with the legal system to make things better for the people using the system. HCD is uniquely suited to finding solutions to these design challenges in the legal sector because of its focus on improving legal services from the bottom up, beginning with the people using the service, rather than a top-down view that prioritises the constraints of existing law and policy.

What does legal design look like in practice?

What I’ve learned from user research is that the legal service experiences outlined above are immensely frustrating for clients due to having to retell traumatic stories, getting bounced back and forth, and waiting for long periods of time without any information on what the next steps will be. This is where design tools can be applied.

Mapping a client journey from the beginning of their legal issues through to the predicted resolution or common outcome, including all the pain points they experience and services they interact with, provides a holistic, empathetic view of what it’s like to experience a problem and where design solutions can help. This is because legal design solutions are best uncovered through user research that focuses on how people experience the problem. Legal design solutions built off this research could include increasing information-sharing tools between organisations, like shared portals and databases for client notes, or referral links sent to mobile phones.

Legal design can also borrow design and technology inspiration from what works well in other sectors, like using designs for digital trackers from parcel delivery companies to let legal aid clients track the progress of their grant of aid. Another example is using digital screens in courts to show wait times and room numbers to improve the physical environment of a waiting room and court navigation using what we can learn from architects and experience designers. [3]

Well-researched design solutions are sensitive to technology capabilities and desirability within an organisation and among that organisation’s client base. Sometimes, legal solutions are tech-centric, like building a divorce chatbot for Reddit. [4] Other times, non-digital solutions are best, like creating more effective partnerships and co-locating legal aid with support services.

In short, legal design is about creating better ways to provide accessible information, develop self-help tools, and deliver services that meet clients needs. Human-centred design—an approach that puts the people with the problems at the centre of the solution—can be used to redesign legal service delivery, implement innovative legal technology, reach more people, and plan for a better future.


Access to Justice/The Importance of UX/Human-Centered Design

If you’d like to know more about human-centered design, then register now for ALTACON on 31 May, 2019 in Melbourne’s Docklands.  Luke will give examples of how human centred design—an approach that puts the people with the problems at the centre of the solution—can be used to redesign legal service delivery, implement innovative legal technology, reach more people, and plan for a better future. Check out the program packed with national and international legal + technology luminaries and thought leaders!

Register now.

About Luke Thomas

Luke started working at Portable after he graduated from the Juris Doctor program at Melbourne Law School. Luke developed an interest in using design and technology to improve access to justice after working and volunteering at community legal centres and human rights organisations and seeing the need to provide accessible and empathetic experiences. His work at Portable includes research and design for the online resolution technology platforms, delivering co-design workshops with legal service practitioners, and designing improvements to the experience of legal aid clients as they apply for and receive grants of aid.




[1] Legal Australia-Wide Survey, Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales, 2012) and Access to Justice Arrangements, Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, no 72, 2014.
[2]Matheson, et al, ‘Leveraging human-centered design in chronic disease prevention’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol 48, no 4, 2015, 472-479.
[3] Hagan, Margaret D. (2018) “A Human-Centered Design Approach to Access to Justice: Generating New Prototypes and Hypotheses for Intervention to Make Courts User-Friendly,” Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality: Vol. 6 : Iss. 2 , Article 2. Available at: https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ijlse/vol6/iss2/
[4] https://medium.com/@ahnora/the-reddit-divorce-bot-85cf1acdcae8