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Creating a New Self-Help Portal for the California Courts

Profile picture for user Mike Madison
Mike Madison Senior Strategist
March 10, 2021

California's court system is the largest in the nation and serves a population of more than 39.5 million people — about 12 percent of the total U.S. population. 

Every year, thousands of Californians seek support for legal claims as self-represented litigants, or SRLs. This self-help system is managed by the Judicial Council of California, the administrative body for California’s courts; it offers legal assistance resources on a variety of topics such family law, civil proceedings and a variety of other issues. Every year, more and more Californians choose to represent themselves before the courts, a trend that the State has sought to address with new investments in technology and content.

Ensuring Equitable Legal Services in California

Government websites are often internally-focused, byzantine places that focus on how the government understands itself rather than how citizens need to interact with it. That gap between how the organization presents itself and how users approach it can seem overwhelming; now imagine the average citizen navigating the largest court system in the country. In 2017, the Futures Commission of the California Courts submitted a report to the Chief Justice that included a variety of recommendations to improve the public's access to the legal system. These recommendations included making investments in technology to ensure that self-help resources are easier to use, especially in family law and civil proceedings. Self-represented litigants, and the organizations that assist them, have often struggled with inconsistent information, forms, and services scattered throughout the California Courts system.

The Self-Represented Litigants Portal: A Service-First Strategy

The Judicial Council of California is now in the process of reinventing their SRL portal to be a service-first, approachable, and useful information hub, making often complex legal processes simpler to engage with. The long-term vision for the portal, or Self-Help Guide, is to replace duplicative and outdated information on trial court websites and make the court system much more accessible to the general public.

Figure: California SRL Portal Homepage

California Self-Help Portal Homepage

 

California’s new SRL Portal organizes around a set of services that has been informed by extensive user and background research on the tasks, case types, legal workflows and frustrations that have typically plagued users. The SRL Portal starts with a straightforward, friendly question: What Would You Like to Do? Users then scan a series of action-oriented responses to find the services and information they need.  

Figure: Rather than burying content in complex navigation, the action-oriented homepage provides direct paths to key services and information based on user research conducted by the JCC

California Self-Help Dropdowns from Homepage

 

Clicking on Small Claims takes users to a landing page where the initial content is straightforward. It notes the basics about what Small Claims is, the fees associated with filing a claim, and links to specific scenarios that help people decide what to do next (button labeled “Go to the steps”). 

Figure: Small Claims Landing Page

California Self Help Small Claims Page

 

Once the user navigates to the "Process" or "Steps" page, easy to understand language coupled with typical decision workflows allow users to access the legal system in a more intuitive way. 

Figure: Small Claims “Steps” page with dropdowns to allow scenario-based exploration of the phases of a case

California SRL Small Claims Process Page

 

JCC: Partners With Drupal and Chapter Three

Delivering services and managing content across an enterprise of sites can be difficult and time-consuming. This is especially true with decentralized systems and staffing which can lead to off-brand variations in how sites look, feel, and operate, confusing and frustrating users.

We understand these challenges. For JCC’s new SRL Portal, Chapter Three tamed this problem by focusing on structure, separating content and administration from presentation. This means site administrators and content creators can work faster and with less friction. A library of design components integrated into a Drupal-powered content platform provides a content entry experience that’s missing all the frustration of fighting with formatting and layout. Enter some content and let the system make it look great, every time, on every page.

The flexible design system provides highly refined components as building blocks for content creation, including body content, headings and containers for "steps" and other content elements. This allows for variation in structure from page to page while ensuring a high quality look and feel that’s consistent with the organization's design standards. The component library stands alone. It can be incorporated into other platforms or projects easily, bringing the same level of polish and simplicity to all of the organization’s digital assets, from microsites to intranets and web applications. For the JCC, these components help easily build informational, “step” or other pages with predictable, clean layouts governed by the pattern library’s tight integration with Drupal.

Drupal's Flexibility Powers Change in the Public Sector

The SRL Portal is one example of a growing pivot towards service-oriented content and infrastructure. For government agencies seeking to rethink and revamp how to deliver services online, the combination of Drupal, pattern libraries and a services-first content approach can make dramatic improvements in citizen engagement and resource management for the public sector. Making websites easier to administer allows your content strategy to focus on the customer and the services most important to them, whether searching for legal advice, paying a fee, submitting a building permit, or any of hundreds of other essential interactions between government and citizenry.

Finally, creating information workflows more intuitive for your customers can help reduce the amount of time staff need to spend answering phone calls or responding to in-person queries, making other public interactions more productive and satisfying for both staff and customers.

Interested in learning more about the project and approach we took? Contact us! We'd love to discuss the problems you're trying to solve and how our insights can benefit your organization.

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