Understanding the support needs of Litigants in Person through Human Centred Design
Published 09/01/2020 by Professor Gráinne McKeever and Dr Lucy Royal-Dawson
Network members, Law and Social Justice Professor Gráinne McKeever and Dr Lucy Royal-Dawson from Ulster University, share some news about their project 'Understanding the support needs of Litigants in Person through Human Centred Design'.
In 2018 we published a major report on the barriers to legal participation for Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland. It was the outcome of a two-year study, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, analysing qualitive data gathered from interviews, observations and questionnaires with Litigants in Person (LIPs) as well as judges, lawyers, court staff, Court Children’s Officers and McKenzie Friends. The research found that there were multiple barriers faced by LIPs in participating in the court hearing. We categorised these as intellectual (not understanding the process), practical (not being able to access help or support), emotional (the process itself generating frustration, upset, fear and anger) and attitudinal (being stereotyped as difficult to deal with). Like many reports, there were many recommendations, but one that stood out as central to progressing the others was the need to change the general attitude towards LIPs, and also to change the correspondingly negative attitudes of many LIPs towards judges, lawyers and court staff.
Cultural change is a process and changing cultures in, and towards, the legal system is likely to take significant time and effort. But there is a need to start somewhere and our current research is examining the potential for human centred design to be able to move this process forward while also identifying the type of support that might be effective for LIPs.
Human (or ‘user experience’) centred design prioritises the design focus on the people who the product, system or service is intended to be used by, taking this user experience to design and build experimental and iterative solutions to the problems that users face. It has been widely used for many years in technology and design industries but it has only recently started to gain traction in designing legal solutions, with champions in the field including Margaret Hagan of the Legal Design lab of the Stanford Institute of Design and Jane Morley and Kari Boyle from the British Columbia Family Justice Innovation Lab in Canada, as well as academics closer to home including Professor Amanda Perry-Kessaris. The arguments for using such an approach are compelling: increasing the usability of the system helps remove the obstacles in litigant journeys, making the system more efficient while improving the user experience. Our research has these goals in sight and so the decision to adopt a human centred design methodology will allow us to evaluate the extent to which supports for LIPs that come from this process can be effective.
The process begins with the development of a ‘persona’ – a fictitious LIP composed from a range of LIP experiences reported in our initial research, detailing their background, their circumstances, their reasons for being unrepresented and the stages of their court process. These personas form the focus of the design workshops. An invited group of 30 participants – solicitors, barristers, judges, LIPs, mediators, family counsellors, psychologists, court staff, justice department officials, social workers, advice agencies, McKenzie Friends and computer scientists – work with a persona to understand their journey through the court system. Working in groups – with diversity built into the group composition – the first workshop gets participants to plot their assigned persona’s litigation journey, describing what the persona might be thinking and feeling at different points, identifying the ‘pain points’ through the journey before moving to frame the problems at each of these pain points as a positive question on ‘how can we …?’ make the particular problem or situation better. The process is intense, and is counter-intuitive for many participants whose default response is to immediately identify the facts, procedures and legal issues in order to move to the solutions, rather than spend time exploring the problem from the user’s perspective and having to actively resist the search for solutions. It demands that the participants move beyond their own personal experience and view the litigation journey exclusively through their persona’s eyes, challenging assumptions and the ease with which those assumptions are made. At the end of the first workshop, the responses of participants to this fundamental part of the process revealed frustrations at getting into the persona’s shoes and at how ‘long-winded’ it was, but also a sense of gaining insight from other perspectives and being ‘free-ed’ by adopting the persona’s perspective which allowed them to think differently, and to move past what can often be a defensive approach by those working within the legal system.
The second workshop provides a more familiar approach for many of the participants, moving the focus towards solutions, while still remaining grounded the in persona’s experience that has been examined in detail and from multiple perspectives. The groups choose from a small selection of the ‘how can we …?’ questions, curated by the research team, in order to brainstorm potential solutions, from the practical to the fanciful. There are no bad ideas and each participant gets to put forward their own proposals. Ideas are then ranked, in this case identifying where they fall in terms of impact and ease of implementation. The high-impact, easy to implement ideas are then selected for further development. Participant responses to this workshop revealed a shift in mind-set for some, moving from scepticism to trust in the process, appreciating the diversity of perspectives feeding into the solutions, and encouraged by the ability to reach agreement and consensus so that solutions were not seen to be coming solely from one source.
Future workshops will create space for the participants to flesh out their design concepts to create prototypes that will be tested, evaluated and re-designed as necessary within the workshops before being provided to LIPs in the Northern Ireland family courts as part of the research. The outcome of the design process is not yet known but the flexibility for creativity within this experimental approach is central to the value of the process.
Beyond this there is a further value for our research in adopting human centred design as its methodology since it goes to the heart of the research focus on participation, ensuring that the development and design of materials is not done by ‘others’ but is a collaborative effort by all who are affected within and beyond the justice system. The most significant barrier LIPs face in court proceedings is the attitudinal barrier – that they do not have a right to be there, that the problems they encounter are their own fault and that they should not be accommodated further since the impartiality of the justice system demands that all parties are treated the same. It will always be difficult to transform a system based on parties having legal representation into one that can easily accommodate the needs of those without legal representation, but human centred design has the potential to influence the mindset of those who will need to make changes, to make the system more accessible.
Our research is designed not just to develop and evaluate a particular form of support for LIPs that exists as the end product of a human centred design process, but to assess whether the process itself can open minds to other perspectives: revealing aspects of the LIP journey that were not visible or appreciated by court actors, letting LIPs see the procedural or technical obstacles that stand in the way of reform, shared vision of what can and should be changed. Human centred design as a form of perspective training has the potential to change the dynamic between court users creating cultural change that will itself help overcome many of the barriers to participation that LIPs currently face.
The research, which began in October 2019, will continue until December 2021, when a final report evaluating both the process and the products will be published.
For further reading see:
- ‘The Story of the BC Family Justice Innovation lab’ Jane Morley and Kari D. Boyle