The judicial system in America is one of the slowest movers towards the integration of technology. Having the weight of someone's future in your hands is arduous. We aimed to alleviate the burden of day-to-day tasks on judges and clerks in the municipal court system to help keep the focus directed towards the important things. Astraia is a task and schedule management application for clerks and judges.
Within a court system, a case is filed with a Court Coordinator who gives the information to the Court Clerk who is in charge of the scheduling, filing and assigning cases to specific judges. When the Judge receives a case, he assigns one of his law clerks to the case. Law clerks can manage anywhere from 1-10 cases at a time. Their tasks for a case include researching cases and statutes, organizing research into legal documents, and writing rulings with their respective judges.
Oftentimes, Court clerks don’t work for just one judge––they work for multiple at a time. This means you have one court clerk who manages the schedules and assignment of multiple judges, and those judges have numerous different law clerks under their jurisdiction each working upwards of 10 cases at a time.
But the complexity doesn’t stop there; law clerks can work with multiple different cases, creating a stressful and difficult-to-maintain system of memos, archaic filing systems, and paperwork.
Our initial interest in the court system was piqued by a studydone in 2009 with 1,000 trial judges. This study stated that prisoners were 65% more likely to receive parole in the morning. In contrast, prisoners that were seen right before lunch were less than 10% likely to get parole. That statistic bounced back to 65% after lunch and breaks throughout the day. Judges were hangry, and we wanted to fix it.
Through secondary research, we focused on three different areas: social justice, municipal courts, and judges. Our findings from our research brought us to make certain assumptions based on what we found.
We ideated on our assumptions and came up with a wide variety of different ideas, from changing the lighting of the room to keep the judges attention alert, to a daily data visualization application to self-reflect on trends that may happen throughout the day. However, we realized part way through our ideation process that we needed to dig deeper.
We conducted continuous secondary research and decided the only way we would get the valuable information we needed would be through primary research. We talked to judges, lawyers, court clerks, and law clerks. After learning all of this new information and synthesizing our insights, our final design solution seemed clear, and we began paper prototyping different types of project management and checklist applications to test with users.
/ Task management is essential to unloading the burden of information off judges and clerks for better efficiency.
/ Judges and clerks are not on the same page.
/ Courts are trying to digitize their systems, but it’s taking a while, and often their systems are clunky, expensive, and difficult to use.
/ Clerks and judges are juggling a lot, leading to time being wasted and them having to frequently acquaint themselves with the facts pertinent to the cases at hand.
Paper prototyping was essential to us understanding what needed to go into our task management system. We conducted user testing with law librarians, lawyers and clerks to understand what day-to-day tasks look like. From these sessions, we were able to extract findings as to where and when the failure happened in the analog systems they use presently, and designed to aid in those specific flows.
Court clerks can work be working on upwards of 10 cases at a time and judges are working with multiple different court clerks all working on various cases. Both stakeholders are juggling numerous new cases as well as those that have been going on for years. This complex system of organizing and remembering multiple different cases, all at different parts of a trial, leads to forgetfulness and confusion between judges and court clerks. Which means precious moments are being wasted, searching through files, remembering what the case is about, and figuring out where each case is on the timeline of a trial.
We made it easy and accessible for court clerks to add a case to Astraia. They can add references, tasks, notes, attach lawyers to the case and also give the ability to judges to assign new cases to clerks of their choice.
Creating a case is only part of the system of seamless communication and cutting down on wasted minutes. Some courts have already realized their need for checklist-like technology and have asked their IT departments to make custom checklist systems for them. The above quote is from Judge Janet T. Neff, a U.S. Western Michigan District judge, explaining what a checklist helps her court accomplish. Our task system allows tasks to be assigned to different stakeholders, prioritized, given due dates and added to specific cases so important information doesn’t fall through the cracks.
Interviewing a law clerk gave us insight into their daily lives. Duties of a law clerk include researching cases and statutes, organizing that research into legal documents and then using those documents to write drafts with the corresponding judge. Learning that so much of their day involves researching on databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw, meant that it was imperative we gave law clerks the ability to add these references to cases and checklists. Searching on reference databases is one of the highest costs of the law and court system. By combining the ability to add a reference to a case, we assure that these references don’t get swept up in other trials, filings, and memos, saving money for all parties involved.
Communication was a common pain point that we frequently heard about in our primary research phase. One clerk told us that meetings often get changed, but not all parties are notified, meaning people showed up to wrong rooms, on different days or not at all. This confusion is yet another stressor within an already demanding environment, adding to the decision fatigue judges and clerks already face during their long and tedious days.
Astraia gives clerks and judges the ability to add events to their calendar, notify stakeholders within the system of the event and also send invites to lawyers or other parties not within the system through the integration of email platforms like Microsoft Outlook. By having the calendar integrated into Astraia, judges and clerks can be reminded of what tasks need to be done before a meeting, be easily reminded what the case is corresponding to the specific meeting and update all parties involved seamlessly when something is changed.
There are barriers and obstacles when it comes to getting technology to be accepted in the court systems, and we we would address that by going to court coordinators and telling them about the benefit of our software, since they are the managers of their respective courts.
We would also push for this to become responsive for tablets and phones, as well as automate case filings into the system so efficiency is maximized and manual input would no longer be required. The integration of LexisNexis, the premier reference database for lawyers and clerks would be an essential add to Astraia’s reference widget as well.
Finally, we would add new roles to the system, for the court coordinator to oversee everything and help simplify their management tasks. Our goal would be to make a more robust communication application for the municipal courts.
My team and I set off in a very broad and intimidating challenge space and were able to find our way and create something we were proud of. Ideally, I wish we would have realized we were trying to tackle both a wicked problem, and a policy problem (implicit bias and decision fatigue) right away so we could have invested more time in interviewing and doing field study observations of court and law clerks. We were able to easily pivot when we realized we were looking in the wrong area, however, and made up for lost time.
I personally loved this project space. I am interested in complex sociotechnical systems and how responsible design can help us incrementally change and respond to the historical problems we face in our society. This challenge space pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to understand how the sub system of the municipal court works within the larger judicial system of the United States.