Nóra Al Haider On Improving Court Access During COVID-19

By Kevin Penton | September 27, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

On their best days, court systems are not known for being user-friendly, particularly for those handling their legal matters without a lawyer as a guide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of these existing access issues, forcing many to try to preserve their legal rights through a computer screen, rather than in person.

At the forefront of confronting these issues is Stanford Law School's Legal Design Lab, which works at the intersection of law, technology and design to create new legal products and systems that place humans at the center.

Nóra Al Haider, policy and design lead at the Legal Design Lab, recently spoke with Law360 about the challenges that people are experiencing accessing courts during the COVID era, and how the organization hopes to create solutions in a series of workshops in September and October.

What is going to happen during the workshops?

There will be case studies about real-life problems that courts are experiencing. All these courts now have to create virtual legal systems because of the pandemic. A lot of the benefits that a user experiences in a physical space are now being lost. Especially if you are a self-represented litigant, there are so many benefits you gain from going into a physical space, and all those benefits are lost in a Zoom hearing. It's just you and your screen.

We want to create interdisciplinary themes of law, architecture and design students who will come together and try to create new prototypes for the problems that courts are currently experiencing. Courts have realized that it is a problem, so that is why we are creating this pop-up lab.

What do you hope to see come out from the lab?

Hopefully we will get a couple of really strong prototypes that we can actually implement in real life in courts. Hopefully these prototypes will increase access to justice. That's our main goal, making sure that even though there's a pandemic going on, that the justice system is still accessible for everyone.

Are there certain things that you are hoping that a prototype would or would not include?

One of the examples we are definitely going to take a look at is the concept of a waiting room. How can you replicate the benefits that people experience in waiting rooms in a virtual environment. If there wasn't a pandemic going on, you'd think, "OK, a waiting room. What's so special about it?" But if you really think about it, going into a space where you can ask for help, to see informational posters, where you can potentially talk with people who have just gone through the same process that you will go through, everything about that experience is now lost. So that is one of the case studies that we will be looking at.

What are some things that courts have done that have gone right, and what have not been good decisions?

I think the workshop will be mostly not about what courts have done right or wrong necessarily, but more of our vision of how these virtual legal systems should look like, with the main focus on making sure that it's accessible. What we are really trying to do at Legal Design Lab is set up a platform called Virtual Legal Systems where we would highlight best practices and guidelines so that courts will easily be able to use these blueprints and replicate them in their jurisdictions.

How do you anticipate that the prototypes will approach users who are less tech-savvy or who may not have broadband in their homes?

We really need law students to take a look at all the regulations that are in place, we need architecture students to to help us on how we can create the same experience for users that they have in a physical building in an online environment, and we need design students to help us with the user experience to make sure that these prototypes are as user-centered as possible. So it's really an intersection of all these fields.

Do you anticipate that your proposals will only be applicable during the COVID era, or do you believe that the prototypes may continue to be used once the pandemic is over?

We are envisioning this will morph into some kind of hybrid system. So you will still have virtual remote proceedings that we have been seeing because, in many ways, it's also very efficient. But at the same time, as courts will slowly start to reopen, we will really see hybrid systems of partially virtual and partially analog, physical buildings that you can physically walk into.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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