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Archive for the ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ Category

Better Forms Can Help Reduce Fear and Confusion for Self-Represented Parties

Christina Wright, February 21st, 2024

In an eviction courtroom filled mostly with self-represented defendants, the confusion and fear can be palpable: fear over what the future holds, and confusion about the process and the parties’ options.

But some of this anxiety can be mitigated. Represented or not, parties should always have access to the information they need to understand what is happening in their court case. One way to help reduce the confusion and fear is to provide easily accessible court forms with instructions in plain language.

A small group of individuals is working toward precisely this goal, and recently I began volunteering with them.

Hands hold a pen and a nondescript form.

When forms are understood and completed correctly, the court process is smoother, time is used more efficiently, and there is less risk of legal errors that might compromise a case on behalf of self-represented litigants.

In 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court created the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice (Commission) to “promote, facilitate and enhance equal access to justice with an emphasis on access to the Illinois civil courts and administrative agencies for all people, particularly the poor and vulnerable.” The same year, the court adopted an administrative order spelling out how the Commission and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) would be tasked with developing, reviewing and approving standardized court forms for the entire state. 

The Forms Committee currently has 13 drafting subcommittees, which consist of judges, attorneys, clerks and other court stakeholders — such as RSI and me — who help create new forms when needed and update existing forms in an annual process, according to Lillie Schneyer, Forms Program Coordinator with the AOIC.

“Annual review is an important process to ensure that the forms are up to date with the latest court processes, are as user-friendly and effective as possible, and remain legally sufficient,” Schneyer explains.

Over the past few months, I have been working with the Eviction Subcommittee to revamp the forms provided to people involved in eviction cases. We are reviewing current documents, such as the Eviction Order, Appearance and Agreed Order forms, that have received comments and suggestions from members of the public or that members of the subcommittee have comments or questions about. (Draft forms are posted for public comment on this page of the Illinois courts site.)

We work together as a small group to adjust language, instructions, spacing, and any other minute detail that has been brought to our attention. Our overarching goal is to make the forms as simple and accessible as possible, with the hope that any self-represented party can maneuver them, while also ensuring that the language used is legally responsible and applicable.

We work together as a small group to adjust language, instructions, spacing, and any other minute detail that has been brought to our attention as in need of revamping. We analyze the law in reference to the language to be used on the forms and the implications of the changes we are making. Our overarching goal is to make the forms as simple and accessible as possible, with the hope that any self-represented party can maneuver them, while also ensuring that the language used is legally responsible and applicable.

The process can be tedious, but having seen eviction cases play out in my role with RSI, I recognize how important it is for all parties to fully grasp what they can expect from the court, what is expected of them, and the options in front of them so they can make informed choices. The forms guide and educate litigants in their options and legal responsibilities. When forms are understood and completed correctly, the court process is smoother, time is used more efficiently, and there is less risk of legal errors that might compromise a case on behalf of self-represented litigants. All in all, having accessible Supreme Court forms benefits both the self-represented litigants and the court itself.

When our work is complete, the revised forms will be published in the Court Forms Hub of the Illinois Courts website.

Want Your Court Communications to Be Accessible? RSI Focus Groups Offer Insights

Rachel Feinstein, October 16th, 2023

RSI’s research has shown that self-represented parties in small claims cases often don’t understand what online dispute resolution (ODR) is or how to use it, even when courts require their participation. To learn what self-represented parties need when a small claims case is filed against them, RSI’s OPEN Project is going to the source —­ conducting focus groups with people similar to these parties and asking what works for them.

Participants in an RSI focus group in Texas provide feedback on sample court documents in October 2023.

Director of Research Jennifer Shack and I led two focus groups in rural New Hampshire in August, followed by two groups in Texas in early October. We will finish our data collection for the ODR Party Engagement Project in Maryland this month. In the meantime, we want to share some of the initial insights we have gained.  

Hearing from 26 participants so far, we have learned about many of the barriers people experience when faced with examples of court documents, a court website and instructional court videos. Groups also shared their recommendations for how the material could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions. The majority of participants have a maximum of high school education. Most, if not all, participants earn less than $50,000/year. These income and education characteristics parallel the backgrounds typical of self-represented litigants, making their insights regarding the comprehensibility and usability of court material invaluable as we aim to develop recommendations for accessible court resources.

Notification Preferences Vary Widely

We are excited to share some preliminary findings from our focus groups. First, we have learned that providing court resources in a variety of formats is essential to addressing the public’s needs and preferences. Focus group participants expressed minimal consensus about the ideal way to learn about their involvement in a lawsuit or how to proceed with online dispute resolution. For example, only half of the 26 participants said they would prefer to receive an initial notice about their lawsuit through the mail. Six people would prefer to receive notice about their case over the phone, while five would prefer text message, and only one person wants to learn of their case via email.

“There are times where the form of a video works wonders in comparison to throwing a chapter out of a book at me or something.”

— Focus group participant

Further reflecting this need for variety, participants in two of our groups were enthusiastic about using instructional videos to learn about registering for ODR. One participant in New Hampshire shared, “I think a video would be good. Where they could break it down and explain it a little bit more in depth.” Another person agreed, “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m a visual learner … If this was on YouTube … everything would be fine. It’d be perfect.”

A third participant added, “There are times where the form of a video works wonders in comparison to throwing a chapter out of a book at me or something.”

In contrast, most participants in the Texas focus groups did not express a need or interest in viewing videos to get this information. But several people did agree that, as one said, “options are good,” when attempting to meet the potential variety of needs, learning styles and preferences among self-represented litigants.

Participants Wary of Possible Scams

RSI focus group participants in Texas shared their recommendations for how court informational materials could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions.

One topic where focus group participants were largely in agreement was their concern about being scammed. During the focus groups, we asked all participants to look at one of two ODR websites on a laptop or tablet that we provided. The first step many participants took was to assess the credibility of the website. For instance, the first reactions routinely included comments about whether the site was legitimate or a scam. Some participants also expressed apprehension regarding receiving the mailed Notice to Defendants, wanting to contact the court to check that it was legitimately a lawsuit against them before following the instructions on the document.)

This initial step of assessing documents and websites for legitimacy may be crucial for courts to be aware of when developing their communications and other resources, since apprehension about whether the material is trustworthy could inhibit people from beginning the process.  

Simple, Organized Info Is Desired

One of the most consistent themes among the participants so far has been the desire for court resources to be simple and quick to use. For instance, we heard from many individuals who want courts to use simple language, concise instructions and well-organized documents or videos. Some participants specifically requested more spacing around paragraphs, and people found sections with bullet points or short fill-in-the blank questions easy to understand.

We anticipate delving more deeply into strategies for making court resources simpler to use and comprehend. Additionally, participants have been identifying key information that is missing from the material and sharing their emotional responses to the court resources. We look forward to examining these and other themes in more detail after we conclude our focus groups later this month. 

Check back soon for a summary of our findings and a guide for courts, which we will provide on a new RSI webpage this spring!

As always, RSI is grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for supporting this important work.

Two New RSI Special Topics Available

Susan M. Yates, December 21st, 2021

RSI is pleased to announce we have added two new Special Topics to our Resource Center. One is about Restorative Justice and its relationship to court ADR and the other is about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in court ADR. RSI develops Special Topics from time to time to respond to issues people who work with court ADR are facing. These latest Special Topics join others on subjects such as eviction mediation, online dispute resolution and child protection mediation.

Both these Special Topics were made possible by a grant from the American Arbitration Association – International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. Thank you to the AAA-ICDR Foundation!

New to RSI’s Resource Center

Nicole Wilmet, April 1st, 2021

Did you know that RSI’s Resource Center is the most comprehensive and respected source of information on court ADR anywhere? Housed within the Resource Center is the Research Library which has an extensive collection of court ADR resources such as articles, studies, court rules, statutes and court forms. 

RSI’s Resource Center Director Nicole Wilmet regularly adds new resources to the Research Library. The following list highlights a few of the resources that have recently been added. 

We hope these resources are helpful in your work! 

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