How is our family justice system like a flashlight on a dark night?

This recent blog post from IAALS (Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System) caught my eye and my imagination. It begins by noting the 2016 Cases Without Counsel study (Note 1) which highlighted the struggle of people trying to navigate the family justice system without their own lawyer and includes the following comment from a self-represented litigant:

“It felt very much like wandering through a room with no lights on, and you’d bump into something, you’d ask somebody about it, and they’d shine a little flashlight and say, ‘go that way’…Nobody ever turned the lights on in the whole room to give us an idea of exactly what it should look like and how the process should look.”

Imagine being in an unfamiliar terrain on a moonless night trying to find the pathway to your destination – without GPS, a map, a compass, a light source or any idea which direction to go? When you finally find someone to ask for help all they do is shine the flashlight on the ground to illuminate the start of a pathway and tell you to “go that way”. What if that pathway is narrow, winding, has many branches with no signposts, leads through treacherous areas and sometimes disappears altogether? Or, even worse, what if it is the wrong pathway altogether?

Those of us with legal training have some idea of what the whole landscape looks like in the daylight and we have some experience navigating it with clients. But most people don’t have the benefit of that helpful contextual information. Is it any wonder that they feel overwhelmed, despairing and anxious?

In trying to make the system work better for users it is essential that we start by trying to understand what that experience is like from their perspective. And then work with them to make it better. How can we bring daylight into the room?

The Lab’s participation in the Youth Voices, Pathfinder and Northern Navigator initiatives has confirmed the value of both user perspective and user participation in the design process. The Lab’s systemic human-centred design model starts with the user and user stories but it doesn’t stop there. We engage with users throughout the design process.

IAALS’ Court Compass initiative takes a similar approach which includes family members as part of a “design sprint” model. One of the participants was a person who had to navigate the family justice system on her own and described her experience here:

“By the end of the design sprint, I felt as though my opinion mattered. We collectively were able to come up with valuable insights on how to improve the divorce process.”

Of course the opinions of family members matter – that is who the system is meant to serve.

Note 1: Dr. Julie Macfarlane’s groundbreaking research in Canada through the National Self-Represented Litigants Project laid the foundation for this work. The 2013 Report includes many similar statements from the public about their experience with the justice system.